Remembering the real MLK

ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- In the four decades since the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the nation has undergone a stunning social and political transformation that even Dr. King may not have anticipated. The average 25-year-old would have a hard time imagining what the country was like before.

No Tiger Woods or Oprah Winfrey or Will Smith. No Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice or Barack Obama. No black presidents in disaster movies or black babies in diaper commercials.


That was my childhood. Now, political commentators speculate without raised eyebrow about an actual black president. While racism lives on, it's a shadow of its former self.

But it was not easy to get here. We do Dr. King and the nation he helped to transform a disservice when we gloss over the social and political tumult created by the civil rights movement, which was deeply controversial and bitterly protested.


So was Dr. King himself. The MLK of elementary school pageants and kindly Sunday sermons is sepia-toned and half-remembered, reduced to a few snippets of rhetoric. If you believe that Dr. King was meek and politically moderate, passionate but never provocative, you don't know him.

The historical record reflects that Dr. King was widely dismissed as a communist - a traitor - by a large segment of the American citizenry, including no less a figure than J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI.

He grew tired of well-meaning whites who counseled patience lest civil rights protesters spark a backlash, a fatigue that prompted his eloquent 1963 "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."

While Dr. King was generous in his praise for those white religious leaders, including Jews and Roman Catholics, who supported the civil rights movement, he also harshly criticized white churchmen who did not.

Among the most controversial public statements Dr. King ever made was his 1967 repudiation of the Vietnam War, delivered at New York's Riverside Church. Aside from its incisive criticism of the war itself, it offered a biting critique of America's use of power.

"I know I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today - my own government," he said.

That speech is rarely recalled during commemorations of Dr. King's life and work, but it is as much a part of his legacy as his speech during the 1963 March on Washington. It is a reminder that he believed that genuine allegiance to his country lay in realistically appraising its weaknesses while laying his life on the line to make it better. He was a patriot.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears weekly in The Sun. Her e-mail is