By Coshandra Dillard
In 2014, I took my three sons to Memphis, Tenn. to visit the National Civil Rights Museum and other landmarks important to the African American experience. There are numerous opportunities to learn about Dr. Martin Luther King’s social justice campaigns beyond his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech. For example, you get to view the actual documents from the FBI at the helm of J. Edgar Hoover which detailed their surveillance of King.
We forget that he not only preached love and equality, but as a revolutionary, he also didn’t mince words about the need for black people to be free and love themselves.
He called out discriminatory policies in an effort to bring forth economic justice, spoke out against the Vietnam War and supported Nelson Mendala’s fight to end apartheid in South Africa.
“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”— 1963, Letter from Birmingham Jail
He also empathized with people who did not emulate his idea of nonviolent resistance, calling rioting the “language of the unheard.”
During a speech at a Michigan high school in 1968, he explained:
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
While he is highly revered today, Martin Luther King Jr. was hated at the time of his death. Unfortunately, his legacy has been sanitized. His speeches are often used to silence those who practice activism today, forgetting that King was deemed a radical troublemaker and considered “dangerous” by the FBI. Erasing his commitment to fighting not only discriminatory laws but also systemic racism, is simply revisionism.