You might have noticed the bit of discord regarding Martin Luther King‘s memorial. Renowned author Maya Angelou has pointed out that an inscription on the memorial makes King seem arrogant. Others have said the crossed arms and glower of the enormous likeness makes him seem the same. “He had no arrogance at all,” Angelou complained to the Washington Post. “He had a humility that comes from deep inside.”
The fact that this has emerged as an issue is good. Considering memorials are the way we solidify our collective memories, it’s important to get things straight: King was arrogant. As a leader whose goals ran counter to the status quo, he had to be.
A 1965 Playboy Magazine interview betrays the kind of arrogance King had to keep close at hand in order to do his job. When the interviewer, Roots author Alex Haley, said King’s critics accused him of being ungrateful about the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which King knew wasn’t enough to secure equality, the leader didn’t talk bashfully about his misguided white brethren, and then sermonize about hope. He launched into an angry and eloquent takedown and asserted that his movement was guaranteed victory:
I never cease to wonder about the amazing presumption of much of white society, assuming that they have the right to bargain with the Negro for his freedom. This continued arrogant ladling out of pieces of the rights to citizenship has begun to generate a fury in the Negro. Even though, he is not pressing for revenge or for conquest, or to gain spoils, or to enslave, or even to marry the sisters of those who have injured him. What the Negro wants—-and will not stop until he gets—-is absolute and unqualified freedom and equality in this land of his birth, and not in Africa or in some imaginary state. The Negro no longer will be tolerant of anything less than his due right and heritage. He is pursuing only that which he knows is honorably his. He knows that he is right.
The interview showcased the valuable part of King that was cocky. Maybe the memorial does, too.
Photo by Lydia DePillis