Perhaps it is a good idea today to remember what Martin Luther King was really about, rather than the sanitized conciliatory sweet little Negro memorialized in this holiday.
America began perverting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message in the spring of 1963. Truthfully, you could put the date just about anywhere along the earlier timeline of his brief public life, too. But I mark it at the Birmingham movement’s climax, right about when Northern whites needed a more distant, less personally threatening change-maker to juxtapose with the black rabble rousers clambering into their own backyards. That’s when Time politely dubbed him the "Negroes’ inspirational leader," as Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff point out in their excellent book Race Beat.
Up until then, King had been eyed as a hasty radical out to push Southern communities past their breaking point — which was a far more accurate understanding of the man’s mission. His "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is in fact a blunt rejection of letting the establishment set the terms of social change. "The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation," he wrote, later adding, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."