10 Historians on What People Still Don’t Know About Martin Luther King Jr. Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. To mark the anniversary of his death, TIME put the question to 10 experts whose recent or forthcoming books touch on the topic: today, a half-century later, what is something that most people still don’t know about Martin Luther King Jr. Gary Dorrien, essays about martin luther king jr of Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr.
King, in his last years, was more radical than everyone around him. Chicago, where his lieutenants did not want to go. He got pelted with rocks in Chicago and admonished his staff that white Americans had never intended to integrate their schools and neighborhoods. After he was gone the memory of King taking the struggle to Chicago, railing against the Vietnam War and economic injustice, emphasizing what was true in the Black Power movement, and organizing a Poor People’s Campaign faded into an unthreatening idealism.
King became safe and ethereal, registering as a noble moralist. It became hard to remember why, or even that, King was the most hated person in America during his lifetime. Historians, theorists and African American Studies scholars who remind us to be skeptical of the comfortable, sanitized versions of Martin Luther King Jr. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War or to his late-in-life anti-poverty crusade as evidence of his radicalism. That critique is important, but by focusing on those late-1960s positions, we fail to realize how King demonstrated radical behavior even earlier in his life. In his book Why We Can’t Wait, which was written in the afterglow of the 1963 March on Washington, King demonstrates that the simple and eloquent dream he articulated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was really informed by a multicultural sense of America that transcended the black-white binary and by a class consciousness that was critical of conspicuous consumption and deeply aware of structural inequality. He stood strongly with unions, which he called the strongest antidote to poverty.