As we celebrate the memory of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., much is forgotten about how many people in the African American community, white liberals, and members of SCLC began to doubt his vision and relevancy. During the last two years of his life, particularly the last year, many middle class African Americans, the media, black politicians, liberals, young activist and of course the FBI made his social justice efforts extremely difficult. Tavis Smiley’s book, Death of a King, reveals the deep melancholy he experienced, because of ill treatment by prominent African Americans such as Whitney Young, Urban League leader and Roy Wilkins, NAACP leader. Even Thurgood Marshall, civil rights lawyer and later Supreme Court judge derided him. African American leaders such as these and liberal white leaders along with the media denounced him publicly and privately.
Why was he treated this way you might ask? I assert that during this stage of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. MLK, Jr. focus was on the tremendous crippling effects of poverty, racism and militarism. He even exclaimed in one of his speeches that, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” His calling-out of economic policies that only benefited a few and wasted enormous amounts of money on an immoral war raised the ire of many in the white and African American community. They felt he had stepped out of his place……a place that was a comfortable fit for them. He was seen as moving too far to the radical left.
In 1968, Martin L. King, Jr., was working furiously to launch two programs that were near and dear to his heart. One was the Poor People’s Campaign and the other was to support the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. However, J. Edger Hoover, the FBI Director, had successfully infiltrated SCLC with a range of spies, who devised disruptive tactics that ultimately derailed King’s protracted efforts. In regard to the sanitation workers, Dr. King was sadly struck by the city officials of Memphis and their refusal to negotiate with the garbage workers, in particular, their unwillingness to reexamine safety regulation issues. Thus, as King saw it, civil disobedience was their only alternative. This dove tailed with the Poor People Campaign.
Once a newsman approached him and said, “Your current efforts and outspoken words against the Vietnam war have hurt your organization budget. Don’t you think you’re going to have to stop all of this?” King replied, “I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Ultimately, a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus, but a molder of consensus. Cowardice asks the question—is it safe? Experience asks the question—is it politic? Vanity asks the question—is it popular? Conscience asks the question—is it right?”
Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., had an enormous amount of faith and courage to follow his conscience regardless of naysayers and government spies. His work to bring about social justice to the poor and working class lives on and his message about fighting wasteful wars that drain the economy is as relevant today as it was in the recent past. Reading Tavis Smiley’s book significantly informed my understanding of King’s mighty struggles to change the fabric of social justice in late twentieth century America. In addition, the book highlights the disingenuous and caustic behavior of a number of notable “so-call” black leaders during the Civil Rights Movement.