‘Selma’ and the human Martin Luther King, Jr.

As we remember my Morehouse brother Martin Luther King, Jr. (Class of 1948) this year we also have the opportunity to engage director Ava DuVernay’s cinematic take on one of the greatest protest sites of the American civil rights movement — Selma (probably only eclipsed by Birmingham) and the last great march of the movement. As good as “Selma” is (and it is good), it has garnered its share of controversy. The film is not the first movie that takes a few liberties with the historical record. In this case, DuVernay has been criticized for altering Lyndon Baines Johnson a bit to serve as a foil for King as he seeks to achieve the movement’s objectives.

The critique that LBJ is treated somewhat unfairly is valid, but it’s not the most important thing about “Selma.” What DuVernay and masterful King portrayer David Oyelowo do well is resist the standard image of King. He is shown laughing, troubled, joking with his friends — human. This is not an easy task when dealing with a man who has been so terribly altered over time. To be sure, when King was assassinated in 1968, a man died and an unreachable, inhuman facsimile was constructed and marketed. This incomplete (and often misleading) image of King is retrograde in many ways. Michael Eric Dyson makes this point in his 2001 book “I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr.”

Since his death, we have made three mistakes in treating King’s legacy. First, we have sanitized his ideas, ignoring his mistrust of white America, his commitment to black solidarity and advancement, and the radical message of his later life. Today, right-wing conservatives can quote King’s speeches in order to criticize affirmative action, while schoolchildren grow up learning only about the great pacifist, not the hard-nosed critic of economic injustice. Second, we have twisted his identity and lost the chance to connect the man’s humanity, including his flaws, to the young people of today, especially our despised black youth. Finally we have ceded control of his image to a range of factions that include the right, the federal government and its holiday, and even the King family themselves, who have attempted to collect a fee for nearly every word the great man gave the world.

Unfortunately, since his death the appropriation of King by the religious and political right, inside as well as outside the race, has resulted in a repackaged effigy used to anesthetize rather than liberate. Without a doubt, the passive, peaceful King image has been adopted and shamelessly promoted by many who do not have egalitarian interests at heart. These people, all of whom are not white, are quick to trot this portrait of King out when black people are rightfully upset about their treatment. At these times, the image exploiters disapprovingly admonish the weary masses, “Remember the Dreamer – he would not have approved of this.”

In this madness, the real King is lost. He has been frozen at the Washington Monument and reduced to four utopian, out of context words taken from one speech in 1963. Lost is the intellectual King who studied and could cogently engage Marx, Neibuhr, Hobbes, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Thoreau, Nietzsche and Gandhi. Lost is the rational, critical King who saw undirected emotionalism in the church as counter-productive. Lost is the flawed King who suffered from anger, frustration, fatigue and sought comfort from women other than his wife. Lost is the political King who proclaimed that America had become the world’s most intrusive imperial power. Lost is the revolutionary King who the U.S. Government considered the most dangerous black man in America before Malcolm presented a more radical variation on the same theme. Lost is King the lover of the people who died working for the rights of sanitation workers, not exploiting the fears of the poor. What we are left with now is a false image of King that often cripples and confuses.

I encourage everyone to see “Selma” and begin remembering the real, human Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a fascinating start, but not an end. I sincerely hope we will commit ourselves to going farther. Read some of what King actually wrote and said. You might learn something. The sooner we rediscover the complete man, the better. And I really can’t wait for those sure-to-come Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman biopics!
Maintain and overcome!

Visit Ricky L. Jones at www.rickyljones.com. Find him on Facebook and follow on Twitter @DrRickyLJones.