MLK Day cynicism? Pshaw!

How one Martin Luther King biographer avoids world-weariness over our once-a-year recognition of the civil rights great.
A young woman holds a photo of the civil rights leader during a 2008 Seattle MLK march.

A young woman holds a photo of the civil rights leader during a 2008 Seattle MLK march. Photo: Andre Helmstetter

Washington State Rep. Drew Hansen

Washington State Rep. Drew Hansen

Last week, a reporter called me to talk about a book I wrote some years ago on the "I Have a Dream" speech. At the end of a long conversation, she said: “I have to admit, when I got this assignment, I thought ‘Oh boy, here we go again. We take Dr. King off his shelf, dust him off for one day, and then put him back up again.’ Don’t you get a little cynical about this whole thing?” 

I don’t, I told her. For two reasons:

First, a few weeks ago, I was on a panel at Bainbridge Island High School with Reverend Samuel B. McKinney, the 86-year-old former minister at Seattle’s Mount Zion Baptist Church and a college classmate of King. We did three different sessions of 50 minutes each in front of several hundred high school students.

Rev. McKinney shared his memories of King as a student (“He was a little guy, and we used to call him ‘runt’”), King’s visit to Seattle in November, 1961 (“We ate barbecue at a place on 18th and Yesler, from about 10 at night until about 4 in the morning. I think we ate about everything on the menu, and the more it was burned, the more Dr. King liked it.”) and what it was like to be black man in the segregated South (“You cannot even imagine.”). 

The students were attentive, respectful and courteous. They asked thoughtful questions. (“Would progress on civil rights have differed if President Kennedy had been a Republican?”) They were not texting or instant messaging or emailing — the only time I saw a smartphone was when a student took a picture of Rev. McKinney. 

That day may not have happened without the prompting of the King holiday. It is difficult to be cynical when you get to see that the King holiday has provided an opportunity for hundreds of public high school students to hear from one of the last remaining legends of the civil rights movement. 

The second reason is that King himself never became cynical, even though — as we often forget — the civil rights movement did not go well after 1965. King started to focus on poverty and segregation in the North, beginning with a campaign in Chicago. But King’s efforts in Chicago — where he said the mobs were more “hostile and hate-filled” than anything he had ever seen in Alabama or Mississippi — ended in a weak settlement that the city easily evaded.

King decided the movement should hark back to its great triumph at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the summer of 1963. He began planning for a “Poor People’s Campaign”; a massive, nonviolent army of the nation’s disadvantaged, that would descend on Washington, D.C. and demand national action on poverty and unemployment. 

That’s what brought him to Memphis in the spring of 1968. The city’s sanitation workers were on strike and King went to lend his support. On the night of April 3, a rally was scheduled at the Mason Temple. The weather was supposed to be awful, a spring thunderstorm, and King had a bad cold, so he decided to stay back at the Lorraine Motel to rest, sending his deputy Ralph Abernathy in his place, figuring no one would venture out in the storm. 

Abernathy arrived at the Mason Temple and saw it was completely packed. He got on the phone and told Dr. King to get down there. King was tired, he was sick and he didn’t have a speech ready. But when he reached the temple he started to speak.

He began by talking about the movement’s victories: the Birmingham campaign, the sit-ins, the time he stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial to tell the nation about a dream that he once had. Then he said:


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