Sometimes, becoming a legend can be the worst thing to happen to your mission. Since his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. has become deified and simplified to the point, that, for several generations, the complexity and depth of his life and commission has been neutered. Yes, okay, he did the "I Have A Dream" speech, and it was a great speech, but if that's all you really know about him, you missed the point. (And if you think that he freed the slaves, as I heard a young black kid say on live television during the Martin Luther King Day Parade a few years ago, then, well...)
I'm all about humanizing great people. Because they are people. And if you start thinking that MLK walked on water and never had the same insecurities, doubts and temptations that you face (spoiler alert: he had more) than you will never be empowered to fight injustice and suffering as he would've wanted you to. So here's 10 facts you may not have known about him, in the hopes that as another holiday passes, we will see the man behind the mythology and realize that we, too, are qualified to change the world.
1) He was a regular kid.
He played baseball and basketball. He went to summer camp. He hated doing the dishes. When he was 12, he skipped church one Sunday to see a parade in downtown Atlanta. He hated the piano lessons his parents made him take because he thought it was girly. He was popular in high school and liked nice clothes. Middle child.
2) He led marches in the North, too. Well, sort of.
In 1966, after all the water hosings, imprisonments and bombings in the South, it was decided the time was right to lead a march in Chicago to protest against racial discrimination in housing. But Chicago wasn't playing that. Dr. King was hit in the face with a brick. It was such a volatile scene that he aborted the march because he didn't want his philosophy to be associated with the riot that was about to ensue. He never led another march in the North again. Damn yankees.
3) He hated capitalism.
Dr. King felt that it was a system designed to bring out the worst in people. He rejected Karl Marx's socialism because of its anti-religion stance. But privately, he favored a more democratic socialism designed to even out the disparities in educational and vocational opportunities amongst people of color, which he believed was the fulfillment of America's promise. He couldn't understand why a country able to feed the world was often at war with the countries & individuals most in need of its help. Consequently, the FBI worked tirelessly to have him labeled as a communist.
4) He fought for the rights of the poor just as aggressively as he fought for the rights of blacks.
It's kind of strange that Martin Luther King Day is still seen by many as a "black" holiday or that so many states took their sweet time in making it an official federal holiday. Part of the reason he stood up against the Vietnam War was because of the deaths and orphaning of so many Vietnamese children, coupled with the fact that it was (then and now) the poorer Americans who were the first shipped off to war. And yes, he did fight for civil rights for the black community (most of whom were middle class at best, by the way) primarily. But please remember that prior to that legislation being signed in 1964, no other non-white race had those rights either. And the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was for women too. Which no one ever talks about.
5) At the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, he owned a gun.
And if you had come inside his house and tried to hurt his family, you would've been shot with it. But he was, like, 26. He had grow into the non-violence thing. He wasn't born with it.
6) At the age of 10, he sang with his church choir at the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind.
Random. And kind of bizarre since Hattie McDaniel was in the movie and they didn't let her come.
7) He was nearly stabbed to death by a black woman in 1958.
While in Harlem, signing copies of one of his books, a black woman named Izola Curry just walked up and stabbed him in the heart with a letter opener. She was later diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and sentenced to a state mental hospital for the rest of her life. He forgave her.
8) Though he is considered a great symbol of Christianity, he disbelieved many fundamental tenets of the Christian faith.
As a teenager, he frequently questioned the practicality of literal interpretations of the Bible. By college, he even had doubts about Jesus's divinity that expressed themselves frequently in his seminary thesis papers. He felt that God was more into how we treated others than how stringently we followed creeds, customs and traditions of the church. But he went along with the flow because he knew he would never be able to assemble the support he needed from the black community while espousing such controversial beliefs.
9) He cheated on his wife. Often.
Several biographies over the last decade or two have discussed this in detail and the public response is usually negative. ("How DARE you smear Martin Luther the King's name like that!") But let's look at the facts: He was 1) An attractive and charismatic man who was 2) wildly famous and iconic at a fairly young age, not to mention 3) under an unprecedented amount of stress and threat of death as well as 4) constantly on the road. Not to justify it, but I see how it happened. Apparently, he smoked and drank a lot too. It never made me think less of him, only gave me more regard for what God can do for us in spite of ourselves. Anyway, the FBI taped his private conversations and leaked the indiscretions to try and discredit him. Didn't really work.
10) He believed that racism would be the downfall of Western Civilization
"Racism is still that hound of hell which dogs the tracks of our civilization. It would be a grave mistake to build the world house on such a foundation. Racism can well be that corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on Western civilization. Failure to grapple creatively and relentlessly with this problem will only prompt future historians to say that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all." (1967)
So if you see something wrong, say something and try to get it fixed. Then do it again. That's what this is all about. Nothing more or less.
Happy birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr.
We love you.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
ABOUT JASON GILMORE
more about jason gilmore
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
1.14.11 @ 11:02a
What an honorable piece. Well done.
1.15.11 @ 1:54a
Thanks Tracey :)
1.19.11 @ 7:50p
Jason, you may be interested to read this: http://www.facebook.com/notes/khary-jackson/essay-why-i-wrote-the-mlk-poem/483583896115