CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A symposium this week at the University of Virginia on the private writings and conversations of Martin Luther King Jr. turned into a pointed debate on the image of the slain civil rights leader conveyed during his January holiday.
"It's terribly important to emphasize the political and economic nature of King's life in the last three years — it was a much more economically, politically radical message that he left in the last three years of his life," said Paul Gaston, a history professor emeritus at the University of Virginia. "I wish this part of his legacy had not been airbrushed out of history, which I think it has been."
As the nation honors King this month, some academics, historians and even King associates say the story of his dream for America is a tale half told. They lament that, to the public, King has been boiled down to feel-good sound bites from his August 28, 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech and photo-ops of elected officials performing community service on his national holiday.
Glossed over and rarely discussed, they say, are King's controversial economic philosophy of social justice and his strong stance against the Vietnam War, which earned him scorn in many circles and a cold shoulder from then-President Lyndon Johnson, who had championed the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed racial segregation.
"I think there's been an attempt by some to sanitize the body of work of Dr. King," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who marched alongside King in the 1960s. "People talk about the 'I Have a Dream' speech and never about the speech that he gave at Riverside Church where he condemned the Vietnam War."
In that speech, delivered on April 4, 1967, at New York's Riverside Church, King called on America to "admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people."
King has gotten a lot of attention recently. Workers are assembling a 30-foot granite likeness of him on Washington's Tidal Basin that will be the centerpiece of a $120 million King memorial that scheduled to be dedicated in August.
His life and times continue to produce a stream of books, including this year's "All Labor Has Dignity," a collection of King's speeches on the economy and worker's rights given as he tried to build a bridge between the civil rights movement and organized labor.
His economic views in the three years prior to his assassination on April 4, 1968, stirred controversy and criticism from those who felt he was straying from his lane as a civil rights leader and challenging the foundation of capitalism.
"One day we must ask the question 'Why are there forty million poor people here in America,'" King said in a 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society."
Guian McKee, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Virginia, said that King's radical thought isn't taught and is seldom brought up when discussing King's legacy.
"I'm somewhat concerned that in events like this, and most of the public commemorations we see of King today, that's been lost — that sense of what King was really challenging the country about is often missing," he said at the UVA symposium. "I don't think King, were he with us today ... would want us leaving here feeling good about ourselves, and my concern is that too often, that's what these events are."
Marcus Martin, the university's chief diversity officer, respectfully disagreed, saying there's nothing wrong with appreciating and celebrating King's civil rights accomplishments and appreciating his message of nonviolence.
"It's OK for us to feel good, I think everyone in the room in a way has benefited from the words of Dr. King," said Martin, an African-American. "I have benefited as an engineer, as a physician, as an administrator. There's hope for all children in our society. ... That would not have happened had it not been for individuals like Dr. King."
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