I first met Martin Luther King Jr. at the age of 7 at Bob’s Barber Shop—“baba shop” we pronounced it—on a once-busy avenue in East Orange, New Jersey. The federal government’s voracious Urban Renewal (read: “Negro Removal”) Program has long since reduced Bob’s and everything around it to rubble, but what I heard and learned there throughout my youth enriches me still.
Like so many Black folks’ barbershops, Bob’s was much more than a place for a shave and a haircut. It was a welcoming epicenter of cacophonous, organic intellectual exchange by passionate men mostly forced by poverty to leave school early for sweltering fields and stifling timber mills, or consigned to Southern chain gangs for trifling or imagined offenses to White folks’ sensibilities. They were nonetheless possessed of intuitive intellectuality, clear-eyed political instincts and thankful appreciation for a place to unleash the soaring thoughts their workplaces had no use for. I loved their earthy speech, the poetry and drawl of their humor, the sheer musicality of their words. But no matter how their discussions began, no matter how or where they wandered, without fail they found their way to the cocoa-skinned young preacher with the sober affect and voice like cool thunder who was their Moses and Joshua both. To them his was a one-word name, a title even, intoned in their unstripped Southern accents with such breathless respect that they barely took time to pronounce it: “MarthaLuthaKang,” he was. Martha Lutha Kang. The sound of his name comforted them, inspired them, imbued them with a species of hope and pride that none but those who have been broken and reborn can rightly understand.
“MarthaLuthaKang integrated them buses and lunch counters, even got folks voting, and ain’t fired one shot. Ain’t used fist nor gun.”
“I got to give that MarthaLuthaKang a whole lot of credit, cause I’ll be dog if I’ma let some White folks beat on me until they get tired.”
“MarthaLuthaKang say it ain’t just about taking a beating. He calls it ‘nonviolent resistance’. Let White folks get all their hate out so we can all love our neighbors as Jesus say.”
“MarthaLuthaKang the only Negro that one set of White folks put in jail for a criminal and another set of White folks take out for a hero. Now, that’s integration.”
But where there are thinkers with strong passions, there is always some measure of dissent:
“Well, y’all can go on with that integration stuff if you want to. But, me myself, I ain’t interested in riding nor eating with no White man. I just want somebody to integrate my money is all, turn my money green. If MarthaLuthaKang do that, I’ll eat a hamburger with George Wallace anywhere he say.”
“MarthaLuthaKang ain’t interested in no money like some of these preachers thinking they supposed to live like kings. He just wants justice in America for every colored man, woman and child. Poor White folks, too. And for all of us to love our neighbor the same way we love ourselves. That’s all he want and all he do. ”
“That MarthaLuthaKang is something else, ain’t he?”
The admiration of the barbershop men for King perched on the precipice of awe. For my part, I beheld him with the wonderment that young boys reserve for superheroes. Away from the barbershop environs I pronounced his name as it was intoned at Sunday School, on the radio and the six o’clock news. But in my heart he was who I first knew him to be: MarthaLuthaKang, who was revered second only to Jesus by everyone important in my world. So MarthaLuthaKang he remained.
Until he did not.
As I struggled through the confusions and recalibrations of pubescence, my imagination was captured by a force that changed me forever: the Black Power Movement. Its rumblings were brash, its rhetoric defiant, its styles and symbols, seductive. After a steady diet of Kingfish, Beulah, Aunt Jemima and Buckwheat, I saw young Black folks standing tall, standing firm, proud of who they were and dedicated to serving their beloved and beleaguered communities; neither skinning nor grinning nor in any way paying deference where it was not due, standing up for themselves and their communities against police who sometimes would rather crack a Black skull than eat lunch. When these rogue bearers of badges betrayed their oaths to protect and defend, choosing instead to brutalize and humiliate, these brave young men and women defended their communities with eloquence of speech, unwavering courage and dedication, sophisticated strategies and knowledge of the law and the occasional fist if circumstances demanded. King’s appeals for love, for “redemptive suffering” and nonviolence —which, I realized, I’d never been fully comfortable with—now seemed both foolish and sadly weak compared to the fearless young people with their black berets, their black leather jackets, their dashikis, orbital Afros and intricate hair braiding. Martin Luther King in his funereal suits and his tradition-laden preachments did not stand a chance with urban youths like me.
So with palpable disdain I cast aside the saint of Black barbershop philosophers and beleaguered Black folks everywhere. But why was it so easy for me to so unceremoniously throw aside a man behind whom so many willingly ventured through the valley of the shadow of death, a man who’d long been my hero, and was still hero to so many?
I see now that I was able to dismiss him with such youthful arrogance because I had no idea who Martin Luther King really was. By then, MarthaLuthaKang the venerated had been replaced in my mind by Martin Luther King the defamed and woefully misportrayed: King the “We Shall Overcome” dreamer of toothless dreams, King the world-class panderer to White largesse, King the preacher of celebrated oratory and naïve, self-abnegating pleas to embrace those who would slaughter our young and often did.
So in truth, I banned King from my pantheon of heroes because I did not know the truth: that beneath the carefully disciplined oratory, beneath his trenchant appeals to love and forgiveness, beneath the countless unchallenged beatings and homicidal assaults, in reality, Martin Luther King, Jr., was more radical than I could have ever imagined. Despite my years of barbershop tutelage and the ubiquity of his singular voice and visage, despite my certainty that the 6 o’clock news and Black Nationalist rhetoric had taught me all there was to know about him, it is clear now that I knew him not. Seduced as I was by the blanketing gaze of those who opposed him in life (and now misportray him in death), I had no way of knowing that when King said, “America, you must be born again;” that when he said, “You have to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values;” and when he said, “There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism,” that in these pronouncements he was not simply talking around the edges of the challenges America faced; he was calling for sweeping changes in the very economic and political structures on which America stands. I mean, how could I have possibly known that when he said, “Our goal is to create a Beloved Community” which “will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives,” that he was not just spouting smarmy sentimentality, but meant instead an America radically reconfigured as an egalitarian democratic socialist political economy (with the emphasis on “democratic”), in which all of God’s children would have equal access to the fruit of the tree of life?
But now I do know. And may it be known by all that Martin Luther King was not only a dedicated fighter for racial justice. He was also a politically radical thinker who had long nursed the visionary hope of restructuring in the image of justice the economic order in this country that so routinely profits the rich and even more routinely impoverishes the poor. To one reporter he acknowledged as much. “You might say that we are engaged in a class war,” he said without remarkable boldness.
But today we have hollowed the boldness of Martin Luther King by hallowing him into America’s apostle extraordinaire of “Kumbaya” and teary-eyed hand holding. The radicality of his vision and praxis is all but lost. Yet in these fraught times we need to reclaim the boldness and clarity of vision of the leader of the most effective movement for justice that this nation has seen, or at least be informed by it. For if the hateful, divisive campaign of Donald Trump is prorogue to his presidency, we are faced with the greatest potential onslaught on civil liberties, love for our neighbors, justice under the law and social responsibility that America has endured in half a century; it threatens to rend the very fabric of our democracy society.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was slain as he forged ahead with that “class war” that still confronts us today, slain on the cusp of realizing a last dream that we must now claim as our own—a Poor People’s Campaign to press for a restructuring of America’s social architecture into a nation that will wax ever more just and ever more equitable—wax and never again wane. Not a utopia, but a true Beloved Community, imperfect yet perpetually trying to do right; ever striving through its legislated policies, its dedicated laws and most love-tempered edicts to answer the call of the prophet that long ago set King upon his own Samaritan’s road, to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Obery Hendricks teaches religion and African-American studies at Columbia University. He is the author of “The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Teachings and Jesus and How They Have Been Corrupted” (Doubleday, 2006).