In the midst of the out-of-context quotes, old video clips and photos and historical amnesia that we usually see on Martin Luther King Day, it can be easy for us to interpret him as being a distant, nearly-mythological figure.
Mainstream media narratives tend to portray him as a one-dimensional, platitude-spewing, peace-loving “magical Negro” who was distinctly different from the rest of Black folks. However, that narrative is often ahistorical and does King’s legacy, and Black folks, a disservice.
It’s important to remind ourselves that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Brother. I don’t say “Brother” just in the sense that he was Black. That part is obvious, I mean that MLK was regular Black folk, and most importantly a human being.
And, in being regular Black folk and a human being, he did a lot of regular, human stuff.
First, we have to remember that King was country. Many people often broadly paint all of the South as being politically backward, neglecting the fact that some of the brightest and Blackest people to influence this world are children of the South.
Born and raised in Atlanta, he spoke with a slow, Southern drawl. He was fluent in the slang of his time, he could cuss when he wanted to, and didn’t always necessarily use the King’s English… no pun intended.
Like a true Southern Black son of a preacher, he liked to eat Soul food. Fried chicken, collard greens and Pecan pie were some of his favorites.
King, the man, was not much different from many brothers I know. In his early 20s, he liked wear fancy suits and drive a nice car to try to impress women and was known as a snazzy dresser.
He enjoyed an occasional drink and smoked cigarettes. He liked to play pool and listen to jazz, particularly Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
He affectionately referred to some of his friends using the word “nigga”. In fact, in the last hours of his life, he reportedly addressed one of his aides, who was running late, by saying “Lil’ nigga… where you been?”
Even some of King’s darker moments are also reflective of his humanity.
As a child, he attempted suicide by trying to jump out of a window of his home. He was chronically stressed and struggled with his mental health as an adult. He slept irregularly and was said to have shown signs of depression, which, based on his circumstances, isn’t surprising.
King’s life was threatened often, he was deemed a troublemaker and a rabble-rouser in the media for his protests and civil unrest. He spent time in jail for his protests. He was routinely surveilled and harassed by law enforcement.
Despite his affection for peace and nonviolent protest, for his and his family’s protection, he had armed security and owned guns.
Another aspect of King that we often overlook is just how young he was. He’s often depicted as a wise elder of the Civil Rights Movement, but at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott he was only 26 years old. At the March on Washington in 1963, he was 34 years old. By his death in 1968 in Memphis, he was 39.
To put it into perspective of how young that really is, rapper Lil Uzi Vert is 26, Drake is 34, and Dwayne Wade is 39.
Martin Luther King was a young Brother.
It’s also important to note that although Martin Luther King fought for racial equality, he loved his Blackness and loved Black people. One of his less quoted speeches shows how King challenged anti-Blackness:
“Don’t let anybody take your manhood. Be proud of our heritage. As somebody said earlier tonight, we don’t have anything to be ashamed of. Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionary and see the synonyms of the word ‘black’. It’s always something degrading, low and sinister. Look at the word ‘white’. It’s always something pure, high, clean. Well I want to get the language right tonight. I want to get the language so right that everybody here will cry out, “YES! I’M BLACK. I’M PROUD OF IT. I’M BLACK AND BEAUTIFUL!”
In recognizing King as a Brother, it helps to show young people, especially young Black folks, that historical heroes like King, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and many others are, in a plethora of ways, closer to us than we often think they are.
In deconstructing the myth of King, we gain a better view of the man, and in recognizing him as a multifaceted human being, we can not only develop a greater appreciation and understanding of him, but also a greater understanding of ourselves.