The Civil Rights Movement and a Complex MLK

It's easy to romanticize time periods.

When I was young, I used to think that the Civil Rights Movement consisted mainly of marching, singing, and speeches.

While those were factors, they by no means made up the entire picture of the Civil Rights Movement. As I've gotten older, I've learned more about the uncomfortable dehumanizing truths of the time. One of these truths that particularly shocked me into having more of an understanding, was that of lynching during the Civil Rights movement.

According to the Tuskegee Institute, as quoted by the NAACP, 3,446 African Americans were lynched from 1882 to 1968 in the United States. And, these are just the ones that have been recorded. The word "lynching" tends to conjure up images of a lawless Wild West, but the practice was disturbingly common during the Civil Rights Movement.

One narrative that forever changed my conception of the Civil Rights Movement is the short story "Going to Meet the Man" by James Baldwin, an African American writer that lived during the movement. It is difficult to read, but it is meant to be difficult, and that is exactly why it should be read.

This short story awakened a space of empathy within me that has profoundly changed my life.

I strongly encourage you to read the mere 12-page powerhouse of a story, so kindly and freely provided at this link.

No matter what your political affiliation is, it's important to know what has happened in the past, especially the ugly parts. It's these parts that linger and ache. It's these parts that bleed into current issues.

As I've stated before, I'm not trying to push a political agenda. On the contrary, I want people to acknowledge that there are differing opinions, while still making an effort to hear and understand the opinions they don't agree with. In order to do this, we need to understand what forces are currently driving current perceptions. And, these forces are rooted in the past.

This is why it's so important to have a realistic conception of the past.

The name Dr. Martin Luther King has become synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement, and, dare I say, the adjective inspirational. He was educated and articulate. He carefully studied Mahatma Gandhi's teachings and practices and Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience." Martin Luther King has become the face of changing the world for good.

Recently, there has been talk of Dr. King's family life, sexual escapades, and duplicitous lifestyle, and even an accusation of him laughing as he witnessed a raping. As you might imagine, this has had a polarizing effect. People either want to pretend the difficult topics are lies or don't exist, or they want to tear down the idolatry that's evolved into Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

This is why I think it's only fair to the memory of this historic man to try to get a practical idea of who he actually was.

I don't pretend to have the pure truth of Dr. King's life. What I do know is that he was human.

It's easy to romanticize people, as well as time periods. We've built up such a magnanimous perception of MLK that we have essentially robbed him of his humanity—a shocking irony when he was fighting against the dehumanization of African Americans across the nation.

We tend to categorize history and people as either good or bad, right or wrong. It's just easier to compartmentalize than it is to sit with the difficult gray area. But, it is this gray area that makes us so complex, so intriguing, so...human. With a man having as complex an intellect as King's, should we be surprised that this complexity manifested itself in other aspects of his life?

We don't have to label him as angelic or degenerate. We can allow him to evolve in a way that memories themselves do. Does this mean we tear down his monuments and not celebrate a day dedicated to him? No. His imperfections shouldn't detract from what he did achieve in furthering equality for so many.

This isn't to say I condone the questionable behavior. I do say this:

For a man to be as imperfect as Martin Luther King Jr. was, and still accomplish what he did for such an upright cause, it demonstrates how layered the human experience is. And, it inspires the hope that fallible people can still bring about great things.

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech "I've Been to the Mountaintop," more commonly known as "I Have a Dream."

Have you ever read the speech in its entirety? Have you ever heard the speech in its entirety? Thanks to American Rhetoric, you can do both here. While the speech and audio are somewhat lengthy, I feel that it is worth just a little chunk of our time to remember words that moved millions and the man that changed the Civil Rights Movement in all of his complexity.


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