It is inevitable that great men who wield great powers are bound to be misinterpreted. History reveals that this inevitability is true to the most influential men of our time, from the bible’s Jesus Christ to Germany’s Friedrich Nietzche, two opposites who share the same fate. The radical ideologies that both men promoted have become the basis of infamous acts and beliefs. For example, the fatal extremist belief that Christians abhor homosexuality is highly in contrast with the teachings of Jesus Christ, who advocated unconditional love and forgiveness. The Superhuman theory of Friedrich Nietzche, on the other hand, has been erroneously used to foster the idea that a particular race of man, or a particular individual, is superior to others.
This Nietzche philosophy was speculated to be internalized by Adolf Hitler himself, who orchestrated the largest mass murder in the history of the world, simply because he believed in the superiority of the German race. Thus, we can see in the examples of Jesus Christ and of Friedrich Nietzsche, that when men rise above the conventions and to the challenges in their time, they are not only bound to become legends, but also misinterpreted leaders.
Martin Luther King: A Force Misinterpreted
“Martin Luther King,” popular civil rights journalist Jack E. White describes King as, “the right man at the right time,” for in a revolution that needed a fearless leader, King became the perfectly accurate answer; the right man for the job. The nation at the time was ripe with protests against inequality. America then was a country that subscribed to the apartheid ideology; segregation of individuals according to skin color was viewed appropriate. Race validated a person’s worth, and King fervently disagreed with this belief. He mobilized the African-American community into launching non-violent protest against discrimination, one of which is the 13-month boycott of the Montgomery bus lines in Alabama, in 1955.
The popular and immortalized story of Rosa Parks, an African-American seamstress who refused to give up her bus seat for a Caucasian man prompted the boycott, but it was King who instigated and sustained the people’s resolve to protest. In 1957, King began organizing a network of African-American leaders and started facilitating non-violent protests in several communities. The awareness and significance of King’s cause heightened even more. The most admirable trait King has demonstrated is his unwavering principle of non-violence, even when he himself had suffered through several acts of volatile violence, including the bombing of his home and unjust incarceration.
Several communities and critics noted his incredible resilience and potent influence, and in the 1960s, he earned the recognition he so justly deserved. Time Magazine hailed him as its Person of the Year in 1963, and in the succeeding year, King was named as the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. However, King did not limit his cause to racial discrimination. He had far too much insight to narrow his perspective on one cause alone. Among the issues that he felt strongly about are the war in Vietnam and its accompanying factor, poverty. By acting on these issues, Martin Luther King, Jr. became not just the leader of the African-American demographic, but the most influential civil rights beacon who led the entire nation of America into a new light.
Such a magnificent leader deserves a golden place in history, and Martin Luther King, Jr. is a figure truly well-placed not only in the annals of history, but in the hearts and minds of the American people as well. However, such a magnificent leader does not deserve a misinterpretation, and martin Luther King, Jr., is a figure highly misinterpreted. King’s impact today extends only to African-American communities and engulfs only the issue of racial discrimination against African-Americans. Although this is a correct representation of King, it is a narrowed perspective of what he believed in, what he stood for, and what he fought and died for. Jack E. White, in his article entitled, “Martin Luther King,” observes that:
It is a testament to the greatness of Martin Luther King Jr. that nearly every major city in the U.S. has a street or school named after him. It is a measure of how sorely his achievements are misunderstood that most of them are located in black neighborhoods. Three decades after King was gunned down on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn., he is still regarded mainly as the black leader of a movement for black equality. That assessment, while accurate, is far too restrictive. For all King did to free blacks from the yoke of segregation, whites may owe him the greatest debt, for liberating them from the burden of America’s centuries-old hypocrisy about race.
Thus, we can clearly see that the United States of America owes him the label of “liberator of all,” instead of the restrictive label, “liberator of the black race.” The American nation we have today would have a very different face if King had not step up to the demands of his time, if he had not heeded the cry of the American people. Martin Luther King, Jr. freed America from the bondage of racial hypocrisy, and yet he is denied such a distinction by assigning him only to one cause, and only to one community. The earlier premise that Martin Luther King, Jr., is a highly misinterpreted leader is once again emphasized here.
As a matter of fact, King had the intention of leading a protest march against poverty, an American plight that was not unique to a certain race. From the cause of racial discrimination, he moved to the cause of fighting poverty. However, before he carried out his plans King was gunned down in a hotel balcony in 1968. Thus, his distinction should not be narrowed down merely to a single cause. His widow Coretta Scott King perfectly validated her husband’s life and her husband’s cause by organizing the “Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change;” for it was the all-encompassing cause of social change that King believed in, stood for, fought and died for.
Another misinterpretation of Martin Luther King, Jr. is the use of his principles and the use of his words to further racial issues grounded on a myopic perspectives. One such movement that stands out from the rest, mainly because of its controversial nature, is the movement being led by Ward Connerly, an opponent of the government’s affirmative action policy. Connerly claims that his opposition against affirmative action is based on, and in parallel with, the advocacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
He asserts the erroneous interpretation that affirmative action is tantamount to racial discrimination. This claim is incredulous, since the affirmative action policy is aimed precisely to eradicate discrimination. It is preposterous to conclude that the allocation of jobs minorities is equal with racial discrimination; it is even more preposterous that a magnificent leader such as King would even be associated with such an incredulous cause.
In Respect to Martin Luther King’s Dream
In these modern times, social change is a cry that resounds with so much fervor, and it is evident that so much has to be done to achieve the dream that Martin Luther King envisioned. King’s complex cause, social justice tied with economic justice, is a feat that requires internal and external changes within individuals, within communities, and the nation at large.
It is worthy and important to note, however, that the United States of America has come a very long way indeed in terms of liberation from racial and social hypocrisy, and in this sense, we can say that King’s dream is slowly coming into reality.
Racial discrimination, for instance, is now viewed as an abhorrent ideology, an unacceptable doctrine for the modern American. It is very much detested that whoever exhibits the slightest belief in it becomes an outcast in a nation of free thinkers, in a nation called the free world. The racist violence that was so apparent, so real, and so brutal in the past, prior to the emergence of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his civil rights cause, seems incredulous; it seems inconceivable that America has ever trodden such a path. The African-American race today, in fact, has earned a stellar place in America.
Prominent names like talk show host Oprah Winfrey, professional golfer Tiger Woods, premier poet Maya Angelou, musicians Alicia Keys and Beyonce Knowles are influential figures in American society, admired by all races in America. Amusing Quotes.com lists this line from Chris Rock, a popular African-American comedian: “You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a white guy, and the best golfer is a black guy.”
Though this statement is intended not to be taken seriously, we see a tinge of reality in it: the reversal of stereotyped roles between a black man and a white man is an indication that America has greatly changed its racial perception about the African-American race. This, however, is just a small parcel of achievement in the social change King aimed for.
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The Martin Luther King Challenge
The world today faces the Martin Luther King challenge, the challenge to forward the cause from racial equality to economic justice, and then elevate these to the international context in order to achieve international peace. Because the nation is merely in the first step, racial equality, it is quite obvious that we do have a long way to go.
To take up and succeed in tackling the Martin Luther King challenge, we have to go back to his words, and one effective guideline that stands out from among his speeches is his advice to live a complete life. Seattletimes.com discloses the manner in which a complete life may be achieved, according to King:
And there are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words of this text: length, breadth, and height. (Yes) Now the length of life as we shall use it here is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. (Yes) In other words, it is that inward concern that causes one to push forward, to achieve his own goals and ambitions. (All right) The breadth of life as we shall use it here is the outward concern for the welfare of others. (All right) And the height of life is the upward reach for God. (All right) Now you got to have all three of these to have a complete life.
Such wise, potent words may ring empty if it is not heeded, and the free world, in order to fulfill the noble dream of Martin Luther King, must begin acting on this quest for completion. True, racial equality is a cause forwarded by this magnificent leader; but to say that it is the only thing he fought for, is very much restrictive. This is the ripe time for America and the world to truly understand his cause, and to truly act upon it.
“Chris Rock Quotes” Amusingquotes.com. 12 December 2007.
“Friedrich Nietzsche.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 10 December 2007.
Kalish, Michael. “Friedrich Nietzsche’s Influence on Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” UCSB Department of History. 10 December 2007.
“The Life of Martin Luther King Jr.” Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. TheSeattleTimes.com. 9 December 2007.
White, Jack. “Martin Luther King.” The Time 100:The Most Important People of the Century. Leaders and Revolutionaries. 9 December 2007