"In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. [Y]ou can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization…filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love… What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black…."—Robert F. Kennedy on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was sitting in a crowded bar, drinking a beer, when the news broke that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed.
The room erupted in cheers.
It was April 4, 1968.
I've never forgotten that moment.
Twenty-two years old and a junior at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, I was horrified that King's death was being greeted with such glee. Then again, as hard it is to believe it today, there was rejoicing all across the country on that dark day that this man—a black activist—a troublemaker—an extremist—had been silenced for good.
Despite having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, graced countless magazine covers, and consorted with movers and shakers throughout the country, King was not a popular man by the time of his death. In fact, a Gallup poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans disapproved of King.
Fifty years later, the image of the hard-talking, charismatic leader, voice of authority, and militant, nonviolent activist minister/peace warrior who staged sit-ins, boycotts and marches and lived through police attack dogs, water cannons and jail cells has been so watered down that younger generations recognize his face but know very little about his message.
There's a reason for that.
As a nation, we have a tendency to sentimentalize cultural icons in death in a way that renders them non-threatening, antiseptic and easily digested by a society with an acute intolerance for anything controversial, politically incorrect or marred by imperfection.
This revisionist history—a silent censorship of sorts—has proven to be a far more effective means of neutralizing radicals such as Martin Luther King Jr. than anything the NSA, CIA or FBI could dream up.
This was a man who went to jail over racial segregation laws, encouraged young children to face down police dogs and water hoses, and who urged people to turn their anger loose on the government through civil disobedience. King called for Americans to rise up against a government that was not only treating blacks unfairly but was also killing innocent civilians, impoverishing millions, and prioritizing the profits of war over human rights and dignity.
King actually insisted that people have a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
This is not a message that the government wants us to heed.
No, the government wants us distracted, divided, warring against each other and helpless to free ourselves from a lifetime of bondage and servitude to the powers-that-be.
In life, King was fiery, passionate, single-minded in his pursuit of justice, unwilling to remain silent in the face of wrongdoing, and unafraid of offending those who might disagree with him.