It’s been over three decades since Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday—but the public image of the man hasn’t grown with the times. Sociology professor Jonathan Rieder, a leading Dr. King expert, offers his opinions based on decades of pioneering research. His most recent books are The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gospel of Freedom: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation. Thanks to a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and one from the Dubois Institute at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research, he spent 2015-16 in Cambridge and Alabama working on his new project, Crossing Over: Black-White Encounters in the Transition from Rhythm and Blues to Soul and Beyond.
Who was the real King and how should we remember him correctly?
That’s always the nagging question, and there’s no simple answer to it. The main problem is that we’re constantly inundated with images of the dreamer, the ambassador of love, who envisioned little black and white children holding hands. Surely there’s some truth to that image.
But that image is too often put in the service of national self-congratulations; look how far we’ve come!: It marks off the time of unfreedom from the freedoms of today. And so it’s easy to forget that for all his honeyed words and diplomacy, King was a tough-minded warrior for justice who never stopped chastizing the larger society for racism and all manner of other evils. Nor was he naive about the power of moral appeal to move white conscience, though he never stopped trying. And finally he thought there were always suffering people on the Jericho Road. The task of justice is never finished. Vincent Harding called King “an inconvenient hero.” King meant to unsettle, to disrupt, to speak inconvenient truths.
What are some of our biggest misconceptions?
That image of King as a dreamer is one of many misconceptions. For starters, and it’s not really surprising, King tended to show only certain sides of himself before white audiences, and even certain black audiences. He tended to keep up a public image of great dignity and refinement. Backstage, it was a different story. King could be hilarious, and bawdy too. He was a wicked tease. He and his preacher buddies joked about sex, about “white crackers” and fried-chicken eating black preachers.
The popular mythology also obscures King’s sympathetic view of black anger, as if he was never an angry black man. But King went through a long period of hating white people, which is why he rarely judged the people who had yielded to hate. “I know the temptation to become bitter . . .it comes to all of us,” he told one audience after the Watts riots, placing himself in that “us” of black anger. Only then did he elevate his audience and preach, “but there is the better way of Jesus Christ.”
Finally, King is often treated as if he was some lone Moses leading his people up out of bondage. Even forgetting about all the other civil rights organizations in the mix, King depended on a network of people—not just his well-known colleagues but rough-and-tumble guys, some of them ex-Marines and football players, who didn’t necessarily start out committed to nonviolence. Just to produce an audience for a King speech in Selma, say, these “foot soldiers” had to pound the pavements, mobilize the community, overcome fear, and get people to the church.
We should also remember who and what won the day in Birmingham, which finally provoke President Kennedy to move towards the civil rights bill. It’s not just that King was piggybacking on the local grassroots movement that Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth had been building for years. As the movement stalled and King faltered, it was his brasher, younger organizers and especially the hundreds of young people who burst out the doors of their school and faced Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses on the streets of Birmingham—they were the ones who took the struggle forward. And they did that on the first day without King’s permission. They’re the ones who reignited the struggle. When you listen to King at the mass meeting that night, you can hear how their spirit flowed back into him and lifted his spirits.
You’ve said the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech contains many things people miss.
King could get fiery glad (“The Dream” speech, for example) or fiery mad (“Letter From a Birmingham Jail”). Still, the first half of “The Dream” starts with a prophet’s rebuke: America is guilty of a shameful situation. And he imagines a white person asking, “when will you be satisfied,” and his answer is unwavering. Typically he just takes Amos’ words as his own: “We won’t be satisfied until justice runs down like waters.” That’s the defiant black man talking.
Even the second half of the speech, when King finally gets to the Dream, is not quite as dreamy as it seems on the face of it. King never deep down embraced the language of American exceptionalism, of America as a Redeemer Nation; he thought of America as a nation in need of redemption. So when King imagines black people singing “My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,” that’s all taking place in some yet to be realized future. And he doesn’t get to that musical place until he dreams of the day “my children will live in a country where they will be judged by the content of their character.” He doesn’t have to spell out the obvious: That nation doesn’t yet exist. That’s a slap at America for its hypocrisy.
It’s also important to focus on what provoked the dream sequence. King had swerved from addressing the nation to speaking to the civil rights activists who had come to Washington (“I know that some of you have here out of trials and tribulations” in the South). The dream emerges first as an effort to buck them up, to give them hope. So when he’s done the dreaming, he tells them to go back South, tells them, “if we struggle together and go to jail together,” then we will we be able to sing “my country tis of thee.” Now consider what he’s saying. This is nothing less than an alternative founding myth for the nation: The country most whites think they already live in won’t exist until black people and the civil rights movement create it.
The final thing that is sometimes missed is for all the civil religious imagery and nods to Jefferson and the Constitution, the speech is an effusive declaration of black pride. The whole speech is sandwiched between two black musical moments. King asked Mahalia Jackson to sing “Buked and Scorned,” the old slave spiritual. In other words, King is going to interpret American history in the light of the black experience of it. Then, after blacks sing “my country tis of thee,” King gives the black ancestors the last word and has white people cross over and sing “the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last . . .”
The amazing thing is that King hadn’t planned to use the Dream trope that day, although it was a standard part of his repertoire. Moreover, he read the first half, which he rarely did, because he was being cautious and the aim was to move the civil rights bill forward. But half way through the speech, King threw down the prepared speech. Congressman John Lewis told me he still remembers hearing Mahalia Jackson shouting, “Tell them about the Dream, Martin.” In any case, you can see King abandon his prepared remarks, look up and start free-styling, his arm goes up, “he’s got church.” And that’s when he starts all that brilliant improvising. This is about as exuberant a display of black preaching—and black pride--before a national audience that you can imagine.
How do you think King would view current campus issues surrounding microaggression and political correctness?
King and his colleagues were men of their generation, with all the misogyny that went with it. As we’ve already discussed, much of their backstage sexual and racial banter would be deemed offensive by today’s guardians of correctness. Inevitably, they would have adapted some. But I think there’s a more important point: King was a highly practical prophet. He was interested less in symbolic displays of identity than always looking to create actual change. So I suspect he would worry that some—and I underline the word some--of the campus preoccupation with “micro aggressions” and “checking privilege” distracts from more pressing work. And I have no doubt that he would consider the most pressing things in this particular moment in our politics to be voter registration, criminal justice reform, and social policies for job creation and health care and poverty, all of which require pragmatic coalition building and electoral politics at every level.
Are there specific lines from his iconic speeches or writings we misunderstand?
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. This is sometimes taken to suggest there is something automatic in the movement toward justice. And surely King had inherited the deliverance theology the slaves fashioned so brilliantly out of the white Christianity imposed on them: that God is centrally committed to the deliverance of captives. But King also believed that didn’t absolve people of the responsibility for their own fate; they have to participate in the bending.
I found a recording of King preaching in the early stage of the Birmingham movement when things were not going well. Only five percent of the black churches were supporting the movement, and they had run out of people willing to go to jail. You can hear an incredibly frustrated King telling the congregation how Moses comes to God and tells him that the children of Israel are crying out for him to take them to the Promised Land. King is speaking as God, and both of whom sound really exasperated: “Tell the children of Israel to go forward.” And then a roiling God-King says with great emotion, “I can’t do it all by myself!”
That gives us a hint of the pressures that King labored under. The larger point, though, is that King always stressed the responsibility of the oppressed to liberate themselves.” And in the black version of the Letter from Birminghan Jail that King preached at Sixteenth Street Baptist church right after he got out of jail, a clearly angry King says, “Don’t you ever think anyone will ever give us anything.” This was the King who, for all his welcoming of allies, was a powerful believer in black self-sufficiency.
This is related to what I think Obama was trying to say the other night in his farewell address: who ever told you it was going to be easy. Forget all the feel good idealism back in Grant Park in 2008. Much like King, Obama was trying to buck up the spirits of all the people who have been disappointed and demoralized by the election of Trump. But more than just giving hope, there was a challenge in his remarks and a tacit rebuke to pessimism: stop complaining, get to work, “dive in.” In other words, go help bend the arc of the universe.
As a figure who appeals to so many, how would King see our crossover culture today where cultural lines are blurred?
King was a much more modern figure than is often realized. He was always scrambling boundaries of all sorts, most vividly through language. Above all else, he was a brilliant spoken word artist who would have been comfortable in the mixtape world of today. Long before there was hip hop, King was the ultimate sampler. He took bits from black and white sources, Keats and the slave spirituals and white liberal Protestant sermons and wove them into beautiful collages of sound, often right on the spot. That’s why he wouldn’t have expended a lot of energy on these battles over appropriation; he was the ultimate borrower. No culture was foreign to him, because he thought our common humanity outweighed our differences. He surely knew that the slaves found a way to tell their story through the story of the Israelites in the Egypt. And King surely never thought his blackness was located in how he talked, or which idioms he chose, or whose sources inspired him. And so there’s this paradox: in the end he didn’t think language mattered that much. Or rather, what defined him was his love of humanity, his love of black people, and his resolve to free both.
All this crossing over is present in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King is like a ballet dancer, pirouetting into this or that world: one moment, he addresses the Jewish world with a Buber quote, then it’s the Catholics with a phrase from St. Augustine, then he’s invoking Tillich and Protestantism. But the criss-crossing goes in all directions. At one point he imagines that if he was a Gentile in Nazi Germany, he would wear the Jewish star. Before that, he takes whites on a tour of black life and just when his black anger sounds likes it’s going to explode with that hammering series of “When you’s” (“When you’ve seen your black brothers and sisters lynched, when your first name becomes n****r, your last name boy. . .”), he pulls out of it and restores communion and says, “Now maybe you can understand why we find it hard to wait.” His blackness and his universalism all merge in that moment: even as he spoke as an aggrieved black man, he was inviting whites to experience a bit of blackness. In a sense he was saying, you might be clueless but maybe you are not hopeless!
For more recent media from Prof. Rieder discussing Martin Luther King, Jr.: WHYY Radio: RadioTimes.
This interview is the second installment of Break This Down, a new Q & A series with Barnard professors focused on research.