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We now “treat it like a day to celebrate King and we ignore the fact that all these other things are going on”.

By Chauncey DeVega, Salon —

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the greatest champions of American democracy.

His accomplishments, along with the other leaders and foot soldiers of the long Black Freedom Struggle and civil rights movement, include securing voting rights for African-Americans and others deprived of the franchise, ending de jure segregation and tearing down the Jim and Jane Crow white supremacist terror regime, and ensuring that the fundamental human and civil rights of all people, on both sides of the color line, are protected by law in America. Historians and other experts have correctly described these accomplishments as constituting a third American founding and a second Reconstruction.

Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 while supporting a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis because he represented a fundamental threat to the white racial order and American apartheid. Unfortunately, while pushed back by the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, these same forces were never defeated in American society. Instead, they adapted and evolved to maintain their power and influence.

With the Age of Trump, ascendant neofascism, and reinvigorated white supremacy the same social and political forces that martyred Dr. King are now reversing the gains of the civil rights movement.

Dr. King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Donald Trump, his MAGA people, and the other American neofascists and right-wing reactionaries are determined to bend that arc of justice backward and then tie it in a knot to destroy the country’s multiracial pluralistic democracy.

To better understand Dr. King’s legacy (and lessons from his life) in this time of democracy crisis and white backlash, I recently spoke with Jonathan Eig. He is the author of six books, including his most recent, King: A Life,nominated for the National Book Award and chosen by President Obama as one of his favorite books of 2023. Eig’s previous book, Ali: A Life, was honored with a 2018 PEN America Literary Award.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling given this tumultuous time? There is an upcoming presidential election where the literal future of the country’s democracy will be decided and the neofascist antidemocracy movement. Jan. 6 and King’s holiday are within weeks of one another. 

It’s crazy. And it feels like we are really missing the point of the King holiday when we treat it like a day to celebrate King and we ignore the fact that all these other things are going on.

“Racial justice and the teaching of Black history are under fire.”

Racial justice and the teaching of Black history are under fire. There are people with Confederate flags who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and more people calling the insurrection an act of patriotism. The real meaning of the King holiday is to remind us of the potential of this country to be one of justice and equality and brotherhood and nonviolence. If all we are doing is talking about King’s dream, then we are missing much of the point.

What is the state of [King’s] dream? What is the dream? How do we actually make it concrete?

We should have a scorecard for the dream. We should look every year at how much progress we’re making on income inequality, war, poverty, and racism for example. If we had a scorecard for King’s dream, we could see clearly that we’ve lost ground in the last few years with voting rights under attack, with racism, war, and income inequality. Ultimately, if we had a report card for King’s dream, we wouldn’t be getting great grades right now here in the United States.

How do you assess the state of that glorious struggle for real multiracial democracy and why so many people actually believe that Dr. King shows up, gives a speech, and then everything is okay with the Black and brown children all living happily together? It is all so much ridiculous magical lazy thinking. 

We need to remember that every time King talked about his dream, and every time there was a sense of progress being made, there was a backlash.

There is the “I Have a Dream” speech and then what happens? Several weeks later there is the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. The FBI produced a memo saying that given King’s “I Have a Dream” speech we must now rate him as the most dangerous man in America when it comes to race.

After Obama’s election, we have the rise of Trump.

There is always a backlash and a struggle. King famously said that “the arc of history bends toward justice.” But King did not say that it bent by itself. King said we have to get out there and bend it.

Where are we with that long arc of justice and history? 

“Ultimately, if we had a report card for King’s dream, we wouldn’t be getting great grades right now here in the United States.”

Well, if you look at it close up, and that’s how we live our lives close up day to day, it looks like the long arc is bending in the wrong direction where we are losing the ideals and principles of democracy. When King came along in 1955 and spoke at that first meeting of the Montgomery bus boycott he promised that the Black people of America might help make this country live up to the dream of democracy, live up to the promises of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and truly make this a country of where all men are created equal and entitled to the pursuit of life, liberty and justice. But the arc is long, and we have to step back and hope that what we are experiencing now in the country is a temporary setback and that we are going to continue to bend that arc in the right direction.

When you think about King, what do we see looking very closely versus what we see from a mile away, that much bigger picture? 

I believe that when we look up close, we see how much King struggled and how difficult his life was and how unhappy he was much of the time. When you step back, and look at how much King was able to achieve, you see how much one person could change the world, how much hope he could give, and how much he could help people overcome their fears and their anxieties and their sense that they were all alone. King absolutely made an enormous difference in people’s lives on an individual and societal level. I like to step back and focus on that.

Learning from Brother King, what did he explicitly say about democracy in his writing and speeches? How did he conceptualize democracy?

King thought that democracy is the great gift of America to the world and that even with its flaws, such as the sin of slavery and the aftermath of slavery and the long stain of white supremacy, he continued to believe that democracy was the best form of government on Earth. But King also believed that democracy in this country had to change. To that point, King believed that as long as we were focused too much on wealth and on materialism democracy was never going to live up to its potential. During the last years of King’s life, in particular, he talked a great deal about reimagining the American democratic experience and American capitalism. King believed that social programs should be boosted greatly as well as income and job guarantees. King was clearly not satisfied with the state of American democracy.

Dr. King and his legacy has been so deradicalized, homogenized, and literally whitewashed to such a point that Trump and the other neofascists and white racial authoritarians, “conservatives”, and white supremacists are now claiming his legacy and work — even though they are fundamentally against everything that King fought and died for. How did we arrive at such an obscene moment in this country? 

It’s absurd. It’s infuriating. It’s intentional. There are people using King for cover as they express their racist views, and feeling like if they quote, Dr. King saying that “we should be judged by the content of our character,” for example, that he must then have been against affirmative action. That is absurd. King supported affirmative action. The problem is that this disingenuous and absurd behavior goes back a long time. The same government that harassed and attempted to destroy King is the government that has created this holiday to honor him. And in doing so, some would say these institutional forces have intentionally watered down King’s message, and deradicalized him. As Harry Belafonte said to me, we don’t like radicals when they’re alive, we only like them when they’re dead. We can water down their radical messages and talk about the I Have a Dream speech, but then strategically forget about the fact that in the first half of that speech, King talked about police brutality and reparations. Too many people soften and try to make themselves comfortable with King’s message. King would not allow it if he were alive today to see what was happening. He would raise a ruckus.

What has been gained and lost by the sacred canonization of Dr. King and his elevation into the pantheon of American heroes?

What’s been gained is that American society has an appreciation that Black Americans played a huge role in shaping this country, and we should have holidays, and we should have curricula that celebrate and teach and contextualize Black history. We should honor our black heroes. But the loss is that in doing so we capture only the safe version of King, the version that makes us comfortable. Again, too many forget that King was a radical. We need to remember King as he lived. We need to go back and reread King’ s actual words. And not just the “I Have a Dream speech”, but the words where King described America as “the greatest purveyor of violence on Earth” among others.

How is the loss of that entire generation of leaders and activists who were with King — and on the ground hope warriors as well, the foot soldiers — of the civil rights movement and Black Freedom Struggle — impacting us today? 

It is still a movement of millions. Just because we’re losing those elders doesn’t mean that we can’t create a new generation of change warriors and social activists — and I think we are. I believe that it is harder for them today to get the kind of recognition and massive audience that King had because the media is so divided. The echo chambers and how people just listen to what they want to hear also makes it much harder. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t out there doing the same kind of hard work like King and others in the movement did.

How has your journey with Dr. King, getting to know the human being through his writing, his work, his friends, and other people closest to him, impacted you? 

I came into it with this fairly superficial idea of who King was. As I went on the journey, I came to appreciate just how much King suffered for what he did. When you sit with Belafonte and John Lewis and Reverend James Lawson and Reverend Bernard Lafayette and Jesse Jackson, and you hear what it was like to be around King, you learn how much he struggled. You hear how difficult this all was for him. It’s really worth remembering that King had the same kinds of doubts that we have today. He too doubted whether he could make a difference. He persevered despite all those doubts. King wasn’t always the man on the monument. King wasn’t always standing tall and proud with his arms folded across his chest as if he had conquered the world. Much of the time, King felt like he had failed and yet he kept going.

There is the forward public facing King and that strength and then there is the private man and his struggles and his pain. There are great lessons there for the fight today to save American democracy and to make a better society because so many of us doing that work are already exhausted and the struggle is just beginning.

King was hospitalized at least a half dozen times for what he called “exhaustion.” But his friends and family referred to it as depression. King was just beat up by this experience of being in the struggle, and having to be at the forefront of it all the time and having people expect so much of him. King felt the burden on his shoulders, and yet he kept going. One of the ironies is that the FBI recordings and surveillance really help us to better understand King’s own personal struggle because we can read the transcripts of his conversations. We can see what King was saying to his friends in his private and darkest moments, that “I feel like no one’s listening to me anymore” and “I can understand why the media is turning on me. Why isn’t anybody signing up for this Poor People’s Campaign that we’re organizing?” King is full of doubts, and he’s taking it very hard. But he keeps going, and in fact, he doesn’t just keep going, he doubles down. King really commits to the most radical elements of his approach when all of his friends are saying, okay, you know what, let’s just scale back, let’s just stick to where we’re most effective. Let’s work on voting rights in the South. And desegregating lunch counters and restaurants because that’s what we’re best at. And King says, I can’t do it, I got to do what’s right, over and over again. He has to live up to his religious ideal and not just do what’s pragmatic.

What was one of King’s greatest moments of doubt about the struggle and the future of this country? How did he get himself through it or not?

“King was clearly not satisfied with the state of American democracy.”

Chicago was certainly one of those great moments of doubt. King felt like he had a responsibility to come to the North, and take on the more subtle, and in some ways, insidious forms of racism and segregation that he saw in the North. King got beaten up, literally, he was hit in the back of the head with a brick or a large stone. King left Chicago without really accomplishing much of what he sought to accomplish. He took a beating there. What does he do? He keeps going. That’s when King starts speaking out more on the Vietnam War and planning the Poor People’s Campaign so that he can address the issues that he saw in Chicago — but on a national level.

I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of heroes. To the degree there are a few heroes I honor and find inspiration from, I embrace their full complexity and flaws, their failings and ugliness along with the beauty. They are not perfect. No one is. How did you balance your depiction of Dr. King and his flaws and greatness?

I just set out to tell the truth and to present the whole story. I knew that King’s heroism would shine through because he’s one of our greatest and most courageous heroes. But I felt like if I didn’t own up to his failures and his weaknesses then I wouldn’t be honest with my readers. I felt like if I just got the balance right that people would respect him and love him and admire him more. As you said we’re all flawed, and we all make mistakes. To see King accomplishing what he did, in spite of those flaws and doubts and fears, makes him even braver. Let’s consider some of King’s flaws. He was not good at recognizing the contributions of women. He did not elevate women’s rights to the status of the other rights that he was fighting for. King missed out on opportunities to have women, including his own wife, play a more active role in the civil rights movement. Does that take away from what he did accomplish? No. It just means that he had blind spots like the rest of us. Maybe if King had lived long enough then he would have continued to learn from those smart, passionate, fearless women who surrounded him, including his wife. You can also look at King’s failures and look at the mistakes he made in places like St. Augustine and Albany, and even in Birmingham. But what’s important isn’t that King made mistakes, but that he kept doing the best he could.

It has been more than 50 years since Dr. King’s martyrdom. What trajectory was he on with his life and work?

It’s very hard to say obviously. I asked some of King’s friends that question. Would he have gone into politics? Would he have gone into education? Been the president of a university? Teaching theology? We just don’t know. But you know, what they all agreed on was that he would have remained a radical. If you look at some of the examples of the people who were around King, you see Andrew Young and Harry Belafonte and John Lewis each taking different paths. But in a very real sense, they remained as radical as ever. Sometimes they found more practical ways to go about their work. I asked John Lewis what would have become of King? And he said, “All I know is he would have kept fighting. Lewis also told me that King would still be saying what did that day in Montgomery, after the Selma to Montgomery march, that we’re still waiting for justice and we’re still fighting for justice, and how long will we have to wait? Not long. As long as we keep working, it won’t be long.”


Dr. King was one of the most unpopular people in America at the time of his assassination. If King had continued doing that social change work, he would be public enemy number one right now in the eyes of Trump, the MAGA movement and the larger Republican fascists and “conservative” movement. Trump and his forces would likely have declared Dr. King an enemy of the state.

Those sentiments help to explain why King was assassinated because that’s the image that had been crafted in part by the federal government and by the media. They went after King and made it seem like he was a threat to American society.

The real history of Dr. King and the civil rights movement and long Black Freedom Struggle is literally being whitewashed and erased and rewritten in a type of Orwellian thought crime regime across the red states (and parts of the country) to “protect” “white people’s feelings”. This is not new, and its roots are very old in the white rage and white resistance to King and the civil rights movement and progress along the color line. 

I see it coming from the same place that J. Edgar Hoover was coming from: It’s a fear of change. People who have power have a reason to fear change, because they might have to share some of that power that they’ve been hoarding, that they’ve been using to take advantage of others. That’s repugnant to them. What do you do when you fear change? You try to keep people from getting educated. You try to keep them from learning the truth around them and that’s what we’re seeing right now in America. It’s the same thing. J. Edgar Hoover recognized that if King and the civil rights movement succeeded that democracy might have to open its doors to some people who’ve been standing on the outside for a long time. What we’re seeing today is the same idea that we don’t want to share power.

How has the time you spent with Dr. King in writing this book impacted you?

This work and journey have made me think a lot more about faith and our relationships to faith and what we’re really meant to spend our time doing. We overlook the fact sometimes that King was really driven by his belief in God. I don’t know that I’ve ever believed in anything enough to risk my life the way he did. But it’s a great reminder that as King said, if you don’t have something that you believe in that you’re willing to die for, then you’re not really living for anything. So, I’ve just been spending a lot of time thinking about what it is that I want to live for. It’s a challenge.

What would a celebration and honoring of the real Dr. King’s life and legacy look like on his holiday? 

It would be a drastic change. It would be a day of marching for what you want to see happen in this world. It would be a day of prayer for some people. It would be a service for other people, but it would be a day where you set out to change the world in whatever way you can — and that doesn’t mean buying discount tires.

When we lost Dr. King, what did we lose?

We lost a person who lived up to his ideals, who showed us that you could live for something bigger than yourself. We lost a moral leader. Somebody who never really put himself first. We lost one of our greatest drum majors for justice.

Source: Salon

Featured image: Dr. Martin Luther King being shoved back by Mississippi patrolmen during the 220 mile ‘March Against Fear’ from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi, Mississippi, June 8, 1966. (Underwood Archives/Getty Images)


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.