Take a moment and think about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Are his arms locked in a chain of civil rights marchers singing “We shall overcome?” Or, is he standing at a podium before 250,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., delivering his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech?
As the nation pauses to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday, many admire his inspirational moments and forget he died because of hatred. That should not be whitewashed.
The reminder was part of a message Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr. conveyed as this year’s Madison & Dane County King Holiday Observance organized by the Dane County King Coalition. A nationally respected scholar, Glaude is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor at Princeton, and chair of the department of African American studies. He has written for the New York Times and Time magazine and has been a guest on MSNBC and NBC’s Meet the Press.
Glaude is also an intellectual who speaks to the complex dynamics of the American experience. His most well-known books, Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, and In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America, take a wide look at Black communities, the difficulties of race in the United States, and the challenges our democracy faces. He is an American critic in the tradition of James Baldwin and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Glaude noted that King devoted his life trying to change the consciousness of America. But the young Baptist preacher surmised nobody truly cared.
“All too often, on this day, we rush to celebrate the life of Dr. King in the full light of this vision of the promise land,” Glaude said. “We are quick to talk about the promise land indeed, but we forget what Dr. King said. That we’ve got some difficult days ahead. Since his death in 1968, America has turned its back on what Dr. King died for.”
King was undoubtedly the driving force behind watershed events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, which helped bring about such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
Yet, much of the leader’s 39 years of life were plagued by violent anti-blackness and hatred from others based on his race and prominence as a civil rights leader. The Nobel Laureate for Peace’s ascent into the national spotlight made him a target for vigilantes and an assassin’s bullet.
Many Americans want to erase that part of Dr. King’s life. Instead, King is heralded in fortifying the “illusion of this nation’s inherent goodness,” Glaude said.
“Dr. King has been dead for nearly 60 years now,” Glaude said. “And over this half century and a decade his bones have been picked clean. Conservatives invoke his name in defense of their vision of a color-blind society to justify the status quo. Liberals use him to authenticate their own milk-toast politics as they tinker around the edges that leave inequality and injustice in place.
“And Black politicians yoke his legacy to their own selfish ambitions, pimping Dr. King in their quest to walk the corridors of power. In so many ways, Dr. King’s life has been reduced to a four-word sentence: I have a dream,” Glaude added.
King knew his days were numbered and bouts with depression made him not want to get out of bed, according to Glaude. Still the civil rights icon, using his faith, remained rooted in optimism that millions of Americans could mobilize a nonviolent army capable of fundamentally uprooting the political and economic status quo.
Regrettably, King’s battles against racism, poverty, equal rights and materialism have outlived him. With so much unchanged, the scab of the nation’s racial politics has ripped off, emboldening a kind of overt racism that many convinced themselves had been banished, he said.
What better example than the resurrection attack on the U.S. Capito on Jan. 6th, calling it the “logical extension” of the reaction to the Black freedom movement of the mid-20th century.
“For well over 40 years we have been living in that reaction,” Glaude said “We’ve witnessed the evisceration of any robust conception of the public good. We’ve left that behind.
“We’re now just self-interested persons in pursuit of ends and aims. So much so, that for some, liberty has become a synonym for selfishness,” he added.
The country’s politics ever since has been overdetermined by the panic of the “so-called forgotten American,” he said. Those in full revolt live in terror that the whiteness of America is in peril.
What’s the solution for real change? Confronting the person seen looking back in the mirror. Many must, Glaude emphasized, confront the reality of what is happening in the shadows and segregated spaces of this country. This demands a level of maturity and honesty that would shatter the myth that equality has been a shared goal.
Dr. King’s prophetic witness and is his dream “unmasked America’s original sin, and we must be mindful of the sin of racism as we move forward into the future,” Glaude said.
Quoting Dr. King, Glaude said: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”