Saturday, September 26, 2015

A King, a Saint or a Traitor? MLK's Last Year

This Tuesday September 29th, AAL will be discussing Tavis Smiley's Death of a King, an eye-opening behind the scenes look at the travails, struggles and failures of Martin Luther King's final year. Given the hagiographic tone of most popular treatments of King, complete with the sanctification of his January 15th birthday, few remember that towards the end of his career, King's legacy was far from assured. Accused of being a communist and traitor by the FBI, and of being a sellout and an Uncle Tom by the newly militant Black Power movement; his fervent, outspoken critique of the Vietnam war lost him key allies. President Lyndon Johnson felt betrayed, and many of the core Civil Rights leaders: Adam Clayton Powell, Bayard Rustin, and Roy Wilkins feared that King had weakened the movement by expanding his vision to include anti-war and anti-poverty efforts. Plagued with depression and self-doubts, King turned to alcohol and adulterous liaisons.

How did such a reviled, controversial and at times self-destructive figure become America's patron saint of racial understanding? Smiley's answer is to show the warmth, strong faith and devotion to the down and out which kept King going in the face of unimaginable pressure. His description of King's respectful and open hearted conversation with a group of young prostitutes who had been heckling him is reminiscent of Pope Francis' bypassing photo ops with world leaders to break bread with the homeless.

Yet Smiley argues that King’s radicalism toward the end of his life has been papered over, while King himself has been reduced to “an idealistic dreamer to be remembered for a handful of fanciful speeches”. How well do most of us today know the "real" King as opposed to the tolerant, peace loving, icon trotted out every January 15th?

In his January 2015 essay "Time to Take Back Martin Luther King Day", Rick Cohen argues that "This year, more than any in recent times, the onus on all of us should be to take back Martin Luther King Day from the emphasis on top-down, one-day, feel-good volunteer fix-up projects and refocus attention on strategies and actions to address racial inequity and injustice today...In 2015, we should all be showing courage to analyze, address, and attack overt, structural, institutional, and implicit racism on the day on which we all too often miss the point of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy by making his holiday one that doesn’t forthrightly address issues of race".

Is Cohen right? Join our discussion this Tuesday!


  1. Nice summary... I refer this website for those who are looking for a source to learn about African American history