MLK Was More Than a Dreamer

It's troubling how the civil rights legend's revolutionary message has been hijacked.

National Archive/Newsmakers
National Archive/Newsmakers

In the years since his assassination, I have been troubled by what I consider to be the co-opting of Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision. What has troubled me over the years is how his revolutionary message has been hijacked, compromised and relegated to being that of just a dreamer.

People are comfortable with dreamers. Why? Dreamers are safe and in a restful state. Dreamers are docile and easy to manipulate. To cast King in the light of a dreamer allows people to be convinced that substantive change resulting from clear vision and direct action is not necessary.

All too often, King “the dreamer” is taken out of the historical context within which he developed. The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the civil rights movement were not created in a vacuum. King and these events are a part of a historical continuum that began in August of 1619, when those first 20 and some odd African “indentured servants” disembarked from that Dutch Man-O-War in Jamestown, Va., and continues to this day.

King is part of the historical practice of slavery, Jim Crow, Black Codes and oppression. It is a narrative that has grown from Olaudah Equiano or “Gustavus Vassa, the African,” born in 1745 in what is now southeastern Nigeria. He was enslaved at the age of 11 and sold to English slave traders who took him on the Middle Passage to the West Indies, where he eventually wound up a slave in Virginia. 

King is a part of the freedom struggles of Harriet Tubman, who, when asked how many slaves she helped to free replied, “I’m not sure, but I would have freed a lot more if they had known they were slaves.” He comes out of the legacy of Frederick Douglass, who told us, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”