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To understand Martin Luther King Jr., don't rely on the highlights reel, experts say

Reducing King to a teddy bear of a civil rights figure robs him of how much he risked and makes it easier to vilify modern activists, experts said.
Image: Martin Luther King Jr
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, in Washington.AFP - Getty Images file

Martin Luther King Jr., the only African American for whom a federal holiday has ever been established, is so widely revered that 90 percent of Americans regarded him favorably, according to a 2019 poll.

But those who have researched King say much of what he truly thought is misunderstood or ignored, or has been supplanted by warm and fuzzy fiction.

Today, King is so deeply misunderstood that his description of a utopian colorblind future has been twisted to undermine the need for a Voting Rights Act and other policies and programs that integrate schools, said Tommie Shelby, a professor of philosophy at Harvard and chair of the department of Africana and African American studies.

King's modern-day political opponents frequently quote him and misappropriate his ideas, experts said. And his philosophy of nonviolent resistance — organized boycotts, sit-ins, rent strikes and other forms of collective action and civil disobedience — has been inaccurately recast as passive, inoffensive, even widely supported during his lifetime, Shelby said.

“Some of this is a feature of American political culture,” Shelby, who co-edited the collection of essays “To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King,” said.

“But also some things are easier to swallow,” he added. “It is easier for affluent people, people who do not want to think of themselves as racist, to be opposed to segregated facilities and violent racial discrimination, than contend with King’s support for the radical redistribution of wealth and opportunity.”

Reducing King to a teddy bear of a civil rights figure robs King of how much he risked, how much he sacrificed and makes it easier to vilify modern-day civil rights activists, said Jeanne Theoharis, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. It also allows the country to pretend that racism is a mostly a resolved matter that exists only in extremes, she said.

“There’s no question, we live in a horrible political climate today,” said Theoharis, author of “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.”

“Among the many problems is this weird self-satisfaction about what a racist looks like,” Theoharis said. “They say nasty things and go to nasty rallies as opposed to what King himself repeatedly said. After Watts, he writes this piece that has this great line about how he has gotten disillusioned with Northern leaders who shower praise on the movement in the South but when attention turns to their city then, only the language is polite. The resistance is hard.”

Public understanding of King as a man opposed to the Vietnam War, militarism and vast inequality has expanded, Theoharis and Smith said. But, during his lifetime, King also supported collective bargaining and public provisions for basic needs as technological innovations gobbled up the jobs of less-skilled workers. He condemned the scourge of unchecked police misconduct and the racism inherent in arguments against police accountability.

King abhorred the idea that time itself would produce racial equality. He believed urgent action and disruption were required. The truth, experts said, is there in the speeches, five books, letters, interviews and other public statements King left behind — no interpretation or misappropriation necessary.

King is the best authority on King.

“But, if any of us are going to have a more accurate understanding of King,” Theoharis said, “we need to, as a general rule, commit to read the whole damn thing. The whole thing.”

So, on this, the 34th Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, Shelby and Theoharis, two of the nation’s leading King experts, have shared a list of critical King reading.

They advised reading King’s books — including the lesser-known "The Trumpet of Conscience" and "All Labor Has Dignity” — and collected speeches and essays in “A Testament of Hope” and a “Single Garment of Destiny: A Global Vision of Justice.”

They also recommend the following speeches:

CORRECTION (Jan. 20, 2020, 1:49 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the title of a book by King. It is "The Trumpet of Conscience," not "The Trumpet of Conscious."