Today is Martin Luther King day here in the United States. In remembering Dr. King’s legacy, alas, his story is sometimes reduced to a few simplistic soundbites, and we forget how much of a struggle his famous struggle really was.
The one thing no one seems to want to remember is how much opposition there was to King and his message, and how ugly and violent and hateful this opposition was.
King and his family faced real threats and real harassment on a daily basis. He was subject to real violence, yet continued to preach a message of nonviolence.
As a reminder of the courage it took to be Martin Luther King, here’s an account of a march he led in Chicago in 1966, taken from Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland. (Content warning: Racist language, violence.)
August 5. Six hundred open-housing activists, ten thousand counterdemonstrators. Some wore Nazi helmets. Others waved Confederate battle flags, carried George Wallace banners, swastika placards that helpfully explained THE SYMBOL OF WHITE POWER.
Martin Luther King, Mahalia Jackson by his side, led his legions forth: “We are bound for the promised land!”
“Kill those niggers!”
“We want Martin Luther Coon!”
Police trying to keep the two sides apart were screamed at: “Nigger-loving cops!” “God, I hate niggers and nigger-lovers,” a reporter overheard an old lady say.
Martin Luther King walked past.
“Kill him! Kill him!”
“Roses are red, violets are black, King would look good with a knife in his back.”
Instead he got a baseball-size rock above his ear. He slumped to the ground—the Gandhian moment of truth. … King got up and kept on marching. We shall overcome.
The racist mob continued to pelt the demonstrators with rocks and bottles, many of them aimed at King. Some 30 others were injured.
Why did King put himself at such risk? “I have to do this–to expose myself–to bring this hate into the open,” he later explained.
He also, as a result of his activism in Chicago, got local real estate agents to agree to abide by the city’s fair housing ordinance. Not a dramatic concession, but a meaningful one, and one that illustrated the kind of everyday discrimination that blacks faced in America.
This is what a real civil rights hero looks like.
EDIT: Here’s some footage of one of King’s marches in Chicago, and a Chicago Tribune video about King’s Chicago activism. The footage here is supposedly of King’s march in Gage Park; the march described above took place in Marquette Park, where he got an even more hostile reception.