King Was Complex, Nuanced, Flawed, Human. Just Like Activists Today

April 4, 2018

I came to learn of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. the same way most Black kids of the 80s did: by way of glossed over Black History Month curricula in Februarys & poorly assembled Black History programs in underfunded school auditoriums.

My initial introduction to King was that of a peaceful Black man who just wanted little white and black boys & girls to hold hands as one. A King who brought 80s music icons together on the “Sing Celebrate” tribute. A King commodified by corporations like McDonalds. A righteous dude who had a cool dream of equality that gifted me a day off from school. I was born in 1980. During a time when Black folks were positing for middle class upward mobility & dealing with the proliferation of inner city gangs and the pending damage of crack cocaine. If the imagery of the 70s had been one of Black pride in the aftermath of 60s bloody Black resistance, then the 80s was an attempt to forge into the mainstream of America as fully actualized humans. An era of selective amnesia that came by way of either a source of self care, the illusion of new access to the American dream or the drugs that siphoned the decades of civil unrest from our memories. These were my formative years. The then presentation of Dr. King that was reflective of my cognitive development. The 90s would find a teenage me being inundated with the “party & bullshit” aesthetic of a hip hop culture increasingly growing away from its sociopolitical foundation. The first half & some change of my life was anchored in the perception of Martin Luther King Jr. as a benevolent man of God who was just trying to do right and was victimized by one mean white dude. A man who was a pious servant wronged by a singular person who did not agree with him. This was before I came to understand a myriad of things and before the curtains were pulled back to reveal the ambitions, flaws, naïveté, righteous indignations & dreams of a relatively young man struck down in the prime of his life.


By the time James Earl Ray’s bullet blew Martin Luther King’s jaw into a thousand pieces, his death had been looming for years. There had been previous assassination attempts on his life, his loved ones were concerned about his health becoming compromised, he had been arrested multiple times, assaulted and was an enemy of the state. J. Edgar Hoover made it a point to highlight King’s immorality by exposing him as an adulterer. Fellow civil rights leaders such as Malcom X and Stokely Carmichael had publicly derided his passivist approach to Black liberation. His family had grown exhausted with his constant comings & goings. Student leaders in SNCC viewed him as an adultist who felt that his methods of civil disobedience were far more advanced than their youthful angst. He was at odds with President Lyndon B. Johnson. At odds with pro-war advocates who felt that he shouldn’t speak about Vietnam. At odds with capitalists who were not approving of his tactics to unite impoverished people of all ethnicities. He was often temperamental with his own team, lashing out at them with curse-filled tirades when they were not in immediate compliance with his wishes. He had a cigarette habit. His masculinity in the present day would be seen as mildly problematic. He backgrounded Bayard Rustin, one his principle speech writers & organizers, because Rustin was openly gay. He was both nonviolent and antagonistic. A man who rose to extreme heights of social order within a twelve year span of doing the work of social justice. He was still learning. Still growing. All under the scrutinizing lens of one half of a nation looking for him to save its soul and the other half of a nation wanting him to be burned alive. He was only 39.


I think a lot about society’s expectations of social leaders. Particularly those who are still in evolution of becoming their fully actualized selves. The world knew Martin Luther King Jr. largely as a purveyor of justice and equality, but the layers of personhood he encompassed makes his legacy much more complex than our lazy analysis often allows. ML, as his mother called him, was a young husband/father, a legacy minister, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, an avid pool player, a lowkey womanizer, an intellectual, a writer, a strategist, a master orator, a friend, a community organizer, a Black man born just a few years shy of Jim Crow in a southern city attempting to defy many cultural norms of the time. His character was built upon these nuances. He had the luxury of not coming of age in the social media/24 hour news cycle so we initially missed the things about him that would have been considered moral inconsistencies. But none of those inconsistencies negate the place of righteous intent he operated from. He was not perfect, nor did he claim to be.


It is hard work to step out on behalf of those who need your advocacy and want your steps to be divinely ordered at all times. Leaders are to be viewed critically, scrutinized when need be and redirected when their agendas do not align with those who they are of service to. We should also never attempt to make deities out of flawed human beings. As a leader, ML taught us way more right than wrong. It is important to acknowledge and learn from his missteps, but more important to acknowledge his humanity and that of anyone who steps out front to do the work that most of us are too chorus to do. We didn’t have enough time to make a great leader into an even better one. We have that time with those in leadership now. There’s no either/or between holding one’s feet to the fire and warmly supporting revolutions we yearn for. These ideas can mutually exist.