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.