I call Martin Luther King Jr – “King”.
Of course, I’m not the only one, but the reason I call him “King” is because to me, he’s like the Elvis of words. He knew how to use words to change a world drowned in fear, intolerance and ignorance. Leading a non violent revolution, he knew that the only and most effective tool were words and he used them with talent, passion and enlightenment.
He was a superhero at the time. A modern messiah who not only African Americans responded to, but also the rest of the world. A humble, oppressed boy from Atlanta, he was so brilliant, that he was accepted into college at 15. He suffered segregation -( a very famous story of King is when he had to stand up on a bus to give his seat to a white passenger, he said that it was the “angriest” moment of his life)- Martin Luther King Sr, his father, was a role model. A Baptist Minister himself, who did not yield to the unfair “Jim Crow Laws” of the south and inspired Martin Jr, to stand up in front of injustice and fight for his dignity.
He led over 200, 000 (!) people to march in Washington for civil and economic equality, where he gave his world changing “I Have A Dream” speech. He mobilized hordes of people, traveled the country, shook hands with celebrities, kings, presidents, union leaders, religious leaders, the poor and the oppressed. He got the right to vote for african americans, protested against poverty, unfair work laws, the war on Vietnam and the Cold War.
His Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech is probably his least known or quoted speech, not because it didn’t matter – it is actually an outstanding love letter to humanity, a sort of prayer for peace – but because he was so focused in not drawing attention to himself and away from the Civil Rights Movement, that he left any theatricality or his singular passion of deliverance out of it.
As I sat through “Selma” the Ava Du Vernay film about King’s life during the arduous times of the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, something seemed to be missing. I had been waiting eagerly to see it and expected to be moved once again by the words and the life of someone so admired and inspirational. But, I wasn’t moved. I was informed, yes: I didn’t know about so many people that worked with him and the minor logistical details of his marches, especially the Selma march. In my opinion the movie falls flat at times, especially in the scenes depicting his personal life and his marriage -as if the filmmakers were afraid to dig too deep into King’s infidelities – failing to show us what it must have been for these two people to stay married in the midst of constant public scrutiny, attacks, doubt and long periods of time apart. I was engaged too. Nowadays, Hollywood screenwriters seem so focused on this aspect of storytelling – keeping the audience engaged – that they’ll stretch biographies and real events beyond their truths, to have the forever captivating fight against good and evil and a clear “compelling” conflict between a protagonist and a villain. So, Paul Webb, not having enough antagonism in George Wallace and J.Edgar Hoover as comic book villains – which they probably were! – turns Lyndon B Johnson into a conflicted patsy, so dangerously pressured for decisions , that he considers again and again, terminating the Civil Rights Movement and MLK altogether. By the end, this L.B Johnson needs a clearly vindictive line, while failing to convince the despicably racist George Wallace to let African Americans vote in Alabama: “I’ll be damn if I let history lump me in with the likes of you”.
It is said by many a conspirate theorists, that LB Johnson was involved or responsible for the assassinations of J.F Kennedy and MLK. Maybe. … But, in terms of the Civil Rights Movement, Johnson was King’s firm all. So much so, that when MLK began to fervently -and very publicly- oppose the Vitenam War, Johnson felt betrayed. (A clear motive for both assassinations?….((??))
One of the main reasons I think I wasn’t moved by “Selma” is because throughout the film, the real words that King used in his speeches, letters and sermons are not heard – or acted by that matter. The most compelling aspect of Martin Luther King’s legacy is left out, a legacy that reached far beyond the Civil Rights Movement – his words. Paul Webb and Ava Du Vernay had to write every scene where King is delivering his speeches and sermons, paraphrasing his real words because everyone of King’s words -oral and written- is copyrighted by his descendants and usage in any form of media can cost thousands and thousands of dollars – DuVernay said that they didn’t even want to appeal to “Fair Use”, which would have allowed them to use short portions of King’s words; probably because Steven Spielberg already has the license of many speeches for an upcoming Warner Bros biopic on KIng and the matter would have gotten “dirtier” – for Hollywood’s “political correctness”.
Even if Selma is not a biopic, per se, since it centers in the very specific few months of the Selma march, let’s be honest: a movie about MLK without his speeches?! –
Seeing him give the “I Have A Dream” speech in front of a massive crowd at the Lincoln Memorial Center, it is impossible not to be moved by the cadences of his oratory, the emotion in his voice, the passion in his eyes and the unwavering conviction that Truth was on his side. He knew all too well that he was making history – he actually says so during his speech; and that he was willing to die for Justice and Equality. During the speech, he doesn’t lecture, he doesn’t preach, he doesn’t try to convert or agitate a crowd. No. He is there to inspire. He appeals to the good within those who are listening, to rebuke bigotry and join him in a perpetual stand for Civil Rights. King was there to inspire the world into hating racism, xenophobia and segregation and to understand that the “American Dream” is un-dreamable if there is injustice “anywhere”. He took this concept so literarily and seriously, that not contempt with wining battle after battle for the Civil Rights Movement, he began campaigning against the Vietnam War for its injustice and wrongness: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” or “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis” or- one of my favorite moments of MLK’s life-: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal”.
All of his speeches are life-affirming. They calling to people of all colors, all nationalities and all generations to live together in love and tolerance. They are legendarily lyrical, even musical and filled with hard hitting metaphors.
MLK’s use of rhetoric is masterful. He takes his audience on a ride through history – alluding to Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in “I have a Dream”- literature, citing Dante in the “A Time to Break Silence” speech, or the Bible in the “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech; and he takes us into the depths of our own selves, looking for the right course of action in front of major moral decisions. In the “I Have A Dream” speech he says that he is coming to cash a check … a “promissory note” written by America’s Founding Fathers, who wrote in the Declaration of Independence- : “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…”
His most important legacy- aside from his words- is the unyielding opposition to violence. Freedom, equality, justice, human rights, had to be achieved through peace.
He was intimidated, bullied, assaulted, mocked, teased, provoked and spied on. His friends and followers were harassed, abused and killed on the streets. His family was cornered and threatened.
He tirelessly traveled the world and gave speech after speech, he campaigned for worker’s rights, freedom of speech, poverty, justice, equality and peace. He faced doubt and never feared for his life. He knew his life was not his own and never feared death, for he lived a life that wouldn’t be wasted, even if he died before his time.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, one of the most racist and violent cities in the country at the time, where he had gone to support a sanitation workers strike. He was staying at the Lorraine motel with members of his staff – and one of his mistresses, they say- and had gone out for a smoke, a habit he kept secret from the public and from his children.
“A single .30-06 bullet fired from a Remington Model 760. The bullet entered through King’s right cheek, breaking his jaw and several vertebrae as it traveled down his spinal cord, severing the jugular vein and major arteries in the process before lodging in his shoulder. The force of the shot ripped off King’s necktie. Unconscious, he fell violently backwards onto the balcony” (from Wikipedia)
His last speech is said to have been improvised.
Here’s to your dream, King.
Against the War on Vietnam
His last speech- said to have been almost entirely improvised:
A day’s work for MLK