Once upon a time, back when oppressed people didn’t have the full equality that they do now, there was one man who was a very nice man and wanted everyone to be nice and happy together, unlike another mean man who scared the oppressors and didn’t be nice to them.
No, I’m not talking about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X — I’m talking about Xavier and Magneto. And as far as such a view of the struggle for rights goes, it is rather simplistic and falsely dichotomous even for the comic book characters, let alone a realistic view of the real-life activists. This is especially true for the man depicted as the “nice” one, whose legacy is all too often misused as a silencing tactic vis-à-vis oppressive enforcement of “civility.”
It takes an incredible short perspective on history to forget that today’s heroes, seen as compassionate and reasonable and peaceful, are often yesterday’s shrill, overreaching radicals. Martin Luther King Jr. was no exception.
It is easy to forget that in his day, in his own country, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was considered a dangerous troublemaker. Even President John Kennedy worried that King was being influenced by Communists. King was harassed by the FBI and vilified in the media. The establishment’s campaign to denigrate King worked. In August 1966 – as King was bringing his civil rights campaign to Northern cities to address poverty, slums, housing segregation and bank lending discrimination – the Gallup Poll found that 63 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of King, compared with 33 percent who viewed him favorably.
Although much of America did not know the radical King—and too few know today—the FBI and U.S. government did. They called him “the most dangerous man in America.” They knew Reverend King was a revolutionary Christian, sincere in his commitment and serious in his calling. They knew he was a product of a black prophetic tradition, full of fire in his bones, love in his heart, light in his mind, and courage in his soul. Martin Luther King Jr. was the major threat to the U.S. government and the American establishment because he dared to organize and mobilize black rage over past and present crimes against humanity targeting black folk and other oppressed people.
Every January, Martin Luther King, Jr. is universally honored as a national hero who preached a peaceful fight against racial injustice. This saintly image is quite a departure from the kind of attacks the reverend endured over his lifetime. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover famously called King “the most dangerous Negro” and “the most notorious liar in the country” while keeping him under close surveillance. Over the years, Dr. King’s more controversial edges have been smoothed over, burying his more radical teachings.
Dr. King wasn’t some meek little moderate who only occasionally raised his voice so that it would be politely below the level of black male noise considered palatable by the white people of his time. In his time, he was considered brash, radical, and angry. His activism didn’t begin and end with his I Had a Dream speech. Our collective memory of his activism ought to do the same so as to accurately reflect his legacy as well as more honestly view today’s activists. The person berated for being a dangerous radical today might be tomorrow’s whitewashed hero used in arguments online and off to tell oppressed people to stop making privileged people sad.