Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Life in Black and White, and a Life in Color

I, as many probably did as well this year, spent my Martin Luther King day listening to and reading works of his (namely his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, and his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”). In this, something that caught my attention was the theory that photos of Dr. King himself, that had been taken in color originally, have over the years been intentionally produced in black in white rather than color. The belief is that this has happened because of an ill intention to put space between our time and his time, to make it seem as though all racial inequality has been banished, and his legacy completely and entirely fulfilled.

These two photos were taken on the same day at the March on Washington in 1963

Now, the reality of these photos isn’t quite as exciting of a story as it may sound. Color photography did exist in the 1960’s, but it was expensive and time consuming. Because the vast majority of photographers were employed by newspapers, and because newspapers were interested in both saving money and having quick turnaround times, the vast majority of photographs were taken and printed in black and white, rather than in color.

But, there is some merit behind the idea that maybe the question is deeper than a simple historical explanation. Why is it that even the most economically sound newspapers of today still choose to publish photos of him in black and white rather than in color? I find myself without a good enough answer.

Another thing that surfaced in the research I did on Monday about Dr. King was the reality of the depth of his beliefs, specifically that some of them were more callous than much of what we have chosen to remember about him.

For example, this is an excerpt from Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” many of us have heard or read on some MLK day either this year or in the past:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And here is another excerpt from the same written work of his that is far less discussed:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride for freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice…

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of course, there’s certainly a reason we hear one of these more often than the other. Dr. King is largely a figure of love, of kindness, of equality and of justice. The first quote proves these things we ask Dr. King to represent; the second, not so much. One could even argue that giving the second quote a bigger platform than the first reduces Dr. King’s influence, because it presents him in a light of cynicism, not hope, that it has the potential to offend, instead of inspire.

On the other hand, the second quote is very real, and we can all understand that intuitively. The Overton window certainly seems to be the limiting factor in social politics, and it is behind this middle ground that legislation always follows. You can’t move the law without moving the middle ground, and thus Dr. King makes his point that the white moderate – that person sitting in the middle, rather than one one side or the other – is the person who has more power in the end.

I think it is often that a minority of us get caught up in trying to remember the details of a certain legacy to defy its cliché. In the past day, I’ve seen many bring up Dr. King’s beliefs against capitalism, for certain kinds of law breaking, and generally his disapproval with the American system. All of these things are certainly facts of his belief system, and things he held on to throughout his life.

However, the problem I think often comes when we choose to see one set of these things over the other. Dr. King most certainly believed that love was the only thing that could drive out hate, and he also believed that the laws of man were allowed to be broken sometimes. He said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and he also said that the white moderate (and not the Ku Klux Klan) is the biggest hurdle in the fight for true equality. He had his photos taken in black and white, and he had his photos taken in color. These things can exist together; they are not exclusive.

There are pieces of Dr. King’s legacy that history has tried to wash away in the barely fifty years since his death, and we certainly must remember those pieces in spite of efforts to erase them. However, those pieces fit into the broader themes of his life, and it is his whole legacy, not our biased view of it, that is worth remembering.

The photos of Dr. King can be black and white. These are still photographs that still tell a whole truth, and there isn’t an inherent harm in having black and white photos. There was no ill intention in taking them in such a way, and there is no danger in viewing them that way now.

But there too are photos of him in color, where the lines on the Reverend King’s face are filled in and the crowd seems like more than a sea of faceless people. They don’t tell a different story, but rather a more full one, one where the gaps are closed and the margins are narrowed, and the story is told with just a little more context.

There is room to remember both versions of Dr. King. We can surely remember the black and white outlines of what he lived for as we go about our day to day life, remembering to value equality and love over suppression and hate. But we also have the capacity to remember him in color, remembering the more nuanced and occasionally less comfortable things he stood for.

In retelling his story, the responsibility falls on each of us to choose whether we will tell it in black and white, or in color. We can choose to preach only the big themes, of which there is no fault. Or, we can dare to preach like he did, in boisterous color that might just get us into some good trouble.

If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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