Thursday, April 25, 2013

MLK and his Angry Side

On April 16th of this year, CNN decided to publish John Blake’s “How MLK became an Angry Black Man” on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”  The title is slightly more provocative than the content of the actual article.  However, the article is an examination of the dichotomy between the philosophy of nonviolence so often associated with Dr. King and his own struggle with the ideas of self-defense and violence.  The most important accomplishment of this article is that it chips away at the master narrative of the Civil Rights Movement and how the philosophy of nonviolence is in the mind of not only King but also all African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement.
We often have a perception of Dr. King as the model of peace and nonviolence, especially in comparison to the pure anger of Malcolm X.  Blake’s article is not trying to make the case that King espoused any notion of violence, rather that the man who symbolizes nonviolence grappled and struggled with his own ideas.  As a youth, King hated whites.  He hated the way they treated his parents, the people he respected the most.  This hatred penetrated his everyday life all the way until he went to college.  Here he learned to control his anger and he developed his nonviolent philosophy.
Although the King-centric narrative of the Civil Rights Movement frames Dr. King’s life as a life of nonviolence, King was actually very understanding of the belief in violence and self-defense.  He knew that rural families have never really trusted the philosophy of nonviolence.  Many of them saw nonviolence as a tactic and not a way of life.  So when people broke out in to riots expressing their anger at the lack of change, King could sympathize with them.  He continually, “refused to demonize black rioters. King once said that a riot "is the language of the unheard."  He would also feel the hatred rise in him when he listened to Malcolm X’s speeches.  Malcolm X was known for raising the passions in his listeners and when Dr. King heard him speak he would remember his hateful feelings toward whites from his youth.
The article also helps to humanize Martin Luther King Jr.  His role in the Civil Rights Movement makes him seems as somewhat of an apostle.  However, his closer associates remember him as, “a man who smoked cigarettes, cracked people up with his impersonations of pompous black preachers, and once abruptly ended a meeting by telling his staff as he headed to a concert: ‘I'm sorry, y'all, James Brown is on. I'm gone.’"  While at the same time the article does justice to King’s brilliance and strong mind.  He managed to write the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” while he was all by himself.  He referenced many important religious thinkers without the sources themselves and wrote on it on the edges of newspaper clippings. 
The article leaves the reader with an important perspective on Dr. King.  It recognizes that he was a significant figure in the Civil Rights Movement, but also that he was more complex than simply a philosopher of nonviolence.  There is more similarity to him and the movement then the master narrative does justice.


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  2. Thanks for posting this, I'm ashamed to say that I did not know about what you said concerning King's personal outlooks. A lot of American culture only perceives as King as the non-violent leader. I think this is an aspect of the civil rights movement's simplification by the Master Narrative. Part of why I think the master narrativer is so strong is that King's message dominated the media. He was a like a celebrity.

    The media focused on King's ideology of non-violent protest, which I think that has had a huge impact on how most Americans perceive King. We only know about what the positive aspects of King that the media portrayed. I also think that King was very aware of the need for the media's attention on non-violence, because he thought it was the most effective means of the movement to create change. There had to common ground in order for relations to move forward. think that if the civil rights movement had been rooted in violent protest from its beginning, the media would have condoned it and white culture would have dismissed blacks as violent and a threat to America. There would have been little room for sympathy from white political leaders (on the federal level). At the same time though, (as you point out) King personally hated white culture. This indicates to me that King grappled with what needed to happen in America: black enfranchisement and blacks/whites shifting their views to see each other as equals, and his hatred for how whites treated black people.