Remembering Dr. King

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I’m sure you know, today is Martin Luther King Day. I have no illusions that I have anything original to say about the great man, his legacy, civil rights, non-violence or social justice, and I’m not going to pretend that I do.

I’ve recently had brought to my attention that Dr. King was one of the very first recipient of the Margaret Sanger award. The following is from the speech he wrote for the occasion (but due to situations beyond his control, was never able to personally deliver). It’s very interesting, in that it expresses an earlier notion of what we know today as reproductive justice:

There is no human circumstance more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is readily available. Family planning, to relate population to world resources, is possible, practical and necessary. Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.

What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victims.

It is easier for a Negro to understand a social paradox because he has lived so long with evils that could be eradicated but were perpetuated by indifference or ignorance. The Negro finally had to devise unique methods to deal with his problem, and perhaps the measure of success he is realizing can be an inspiration to others coping with tenacious social problems.

In our struggle for equality we were confronted with the reality that many millions of people were essentially ignorant of our conditions or refused to face unpleasant truths. The hard-core bigot was merely one of our adversaries. The millions who were blind to our plight had to be compelled to face the social evil their indifference permitted to flourish.

I recommend that you go read the whole thing. I don’t find it to be unproblematic, and though Sanger was a Great woman who did Great things and I appreciate that Dr. King appreciated that, I do think he cuts her a tiny bit too much slack in ignoring the racist and eugenic views that were a part of her success with the reproductive rights movement. But it’s still a great speech, and an interesting opportunity to see Dr. King outside of the simplistic and incomplete image of him as purely an organizer of marches and sit-ins. His views with regards to civil rights and social justice went far beyond the abolishment of segregation.

I certainly agree with those who say that Dr. King is much more than “I Have a Dream,” and that we need to look beyond this one great speech to his other and often more radical work. But I strongly reject the notion that the speech is “quaint” or a “cliché.” Though it has indeed been used for political purposes for which it was never intended, though it has indeed become a speech that white people who like to think of racism as a thing of the past can be comfortable with, I believe that this is only true because it has been so abridged, manipulated and misunderstood. Though, as Howard says, the media does package it as a “nice two-minute nostalgia clip,” the speech was actually about 11 minutes long. The white writers of history have mostly amputated it, focused on those last two minutes, the last few paragraphs that almost everyone but the most hardcore racists can get behind, and that serve as an argument for a “colorblind” society when taken out of context. As BFP says — in her post that contains a full transcript — “I Have a Dream” was not about colorblindness, it was about justice. I don’t know if most people have even heard the full speech. If they have, most have forgotten what comes before “let freedom ring,” and it’s certainly not the speech that you read, hear and recite in history class as a kid. So, at the risk of being cliché myself, I leave you with Dr. King’s most famous moment — in its entirety.

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion . . . that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice . . . who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

0 thoughts on “Remembering Dr. King

  1. Paul

    I think that Sanger shows how even “decent” people (her good work with PP) are products of the time and culture in which they live.

    Racist and eugenic beliefs were common back then even among “decent people”. It would be easy to paint Sanger and others as crude one-dimensional villains but that ignores the context of the world in which they lived.

    Sadly, as with Dr. King, people don’t want the complexities of real history, they want “Hollywood history” in which the heroes are white and pure and the villains are dark and evil with none of the shades of grey of reality.

  2. jovan byars

    The Rev. Dr. King received the Margaret Sanger award in 1966. I looked this up a few years back, so I remember that like I remember the back of my hand.


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