Wednesday, January 19, 2011

He Was One of Us

Over the past few days we have been bombarded with images and videos of Dr. King, from his “Normalcy, Never Again” (“I Have a Dream”) speech, to his final public address, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” However, I was surprised to see an image of King making its rounds on the internet (via Twitter) that I had not seen in a long time. The photograph is of King preparing to take a behind the back shot at the eleven ball during a game of pool. From the photo, it looks like he knew what he was doing—this definitely was not the first time Dr. King had held a pool cue in his hands. In reading the comments of those who tweeted and re-tweeted (RT) the photo, many had never seen this particular image of the famous civil rights leader. As I started to follow discussions about the picture, most people really just hinged on how cool it was to see a picture like that of King in that setting, or some mentioned things about the artistry of the photograph. I looked at it, remembering the last time I saw the picture and I began to think about it differently.

As a historian, I am trained to always think about context when it comes to the writing and indeed the telling of history. In that regard, context is what helps us to understand any historical moment or key figure. Nothing in this world occurs in a vacuum, so it is important to understand the story behind any event, a person’s life, or as in this case, a snapshot of that life.

The background or context of the photograph is best discussed in two parts. One, how did the picture come to be and two, how did King seem so comfortable around a billiard hall in the first place? We are talking about one of the most recognizable faces in the history of the twentieth-century, are we not? After we have context, it’s important to ask the question, “Why is this relevant?” What does a picture of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. playing pool tell us in 2011, especially on the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the King holiday?

The photograph in question was likely captured while King was in Chicago in 1966. King was in the middle of a game with fellow civil rights activist and Chicago native, Al Raby. King and Raby were in the midst of an anti-slum crusade on Chicago’s Southside.

During my research for this article, I also found another picture of Dr. King playing pool. This one was of him in a community center in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The year was 1964, the Freedom Summer campaign was in full swing and at the time, there were three civil rights workers missing. King had come down to Mississippi to see what was happening with his own eyes. Unfortunately, the missing workers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were later found murdered. These were not the only two times that King had played pool or visited a bar. He learned to play the game while an incoming student at Crozer Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. There, in the basement of the chapel was a recreation room that consisted of three pool tables and a shuffleboard court. By the time he left Crozer and matriculated at Boston University to pursue his doctoral studies, King was a pretty good pool player. This explains why he looked so comfortable around a billiard table in the photos.

We now know the context behind a pair of photographs of King. These pictures are not the typical shots of him in a pulpit, or leading a protest march, or some photograph of him in deep thought, like you see on any number of posters, paintings, and book covers. So what can we learn from these pictures? Why should we care, outside of them looking ‘cool’? They are important because they give us a tacit example of King’s humanity. Too often we exalt him into a place in our collective consciousness or popular memory that makes him inaccessible in some way. We often deify him as a martyr. What should be emphasized is that at the end of the day, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was simply a man. His ability to play pool should only remind us of our shared experiences as part of our larger kinship ties—the brotherhood of humanity. When we make King a martyr we also conveniently make him so “great” that he doesn’t even seem human. Dr. King had self-doubt; he had joy and pain in his life, just as we all have had. Placing King on a pedestal makes it easier for us not to be accountable to each other and to society as a whole. We begin to say to ourselves, “I can’t do what he did. I’m just a regular person—I’m can’t be Dr. King.”

When you see the picture of King playing pool do not view the image just as a historical moment, but see yourself in the photo. See Dr. King as not just a leader, but as a man. King showing up in the pool halls, bars, and community centers was not just an attempt by him to see the people or connect with them; he was one of them—and by extension one of us.


ty-jo-mika said...

I read an essay that shared this point of view. What I found especially relevant, is that "ordinary" black people tend to believe that they do not possess leadership ability because they feel they are a deity force like what we attach to Dr. King. Instead of becoming leaders of ourselves, we sit back and wait for Omnipotent-like leaders such as what we've made of Dr. King. We become less inclined to locate our inner strength to be active progressive individuals who carry the charge of social justice for all Africans on the shores of the Americas.

Anonymous said...

First time poster, I found your blog via RT on twitter and enjoy.

Great post, you could not have broken it down any clearer, MLK was a man/human just like us. I saw this picture too and will admit it was quite fascinating at first, like you said 90% of pics we see or remember of MLK are of him at speeches, in pulpit or in thought provoking stances. So to see him doing something as simple/common as shooting pool was foreign.

Then I thought about it like you said, he was human and did human things as we all do. Most of us do tend to make MLK martyr like and as if he was Jesus. We have heard so much about the great things he did we lose sight or forget that he did not do great things everyday of his 39yrs on earth, therefore he had hobbies, bad days and felt pain like any human.

As i read this I couldnt help but think of how alot of people are now doing the same thing with President Obama. Many are putting him on the same category/pedestal (literally) as MLK. On MLK day i saw a lot of people posting several photoshoped pics of MLK and POTUS together, one in particular that rubbed me the wrong way was one with the captions "dream fulfilled".

Some how people have gotten the idea that MLK dreamed that we would have a black president. It saddens me people actually believe that by us electing a black president MLK dream is now fulfilled. Sure MLK would have wanted equality in political races but he wanted equality for ALL people in ALL walks of life. And the fact that people don't seem to know or realize there is a big difference between a Politician(POTUS) and a Civil Rights leader. Somehow people have made POTUS to be a Civil Rights leader/crusader, yes he might want equality and justice but at the end of the day he is a democrat politician that governs and sides with his political party.

I just get upset that people are buying into the "dream fulfilled" gag as if MLK dreamed only f having a black POTUS. Also hate the fact people are putting president Obama on that same pedestal, therefore he is above criticism and martyr like. I'm sure MLK would be proud of POTUS and support him but i'm sure he would also say "there is still much work to do!"

Sorry didn't mean to write such a long comment and not sure if you addressed that, but your post made me think of how people are currently viewing President Obama.

Joseph Boston said...


Great piece. I just wrote a piece on MLK day touching on some of the very points you articulated in your blog post.

I think it is important that we deconstruct the mythologies that tend to be created about our public figures over time. For some people the mythologies that surround them work in their benefit. In regard to Dr. King's life and legacy the mythical ethos surrounding his life and work has been in many ways a stumbling block to the sacrificial life he laid down for the progressive movement in regard to social and economic justice/equality.

When these mythologies are allowed to foster it creates a mindset in the believer of said mythologies
that produces an almost unattainable and saintly chasm between the individual and the individual they are looking "up" to. In the case of Dr. King, this type of mindset renders them (in their mind) incapable of doing such work as King did because their inadequacies are magnified in the comparative light of the mythology and lore that has been created by Dr.King's legacy. Thus they are incapacitated by the very thing that inspires them in the first place. Even Dr King himself said in the Pulitzer Prize winning novel "Bearing The Cross: Martin Luther King and the SCLC" that "the movement shaped him more than he shaped the movement". A great man, yes, but still a man who was inextricably caught up by the tide of destiny and purpose shaped by an even greater GOD.

We have to remember rightly and in a manner that is an accurate depiction of the past and the personalities portrayed in it. It is important not just for posterities sake, and more than just to remember Dr. King as he would want us to, in the fullness of his person, but for OURSELVES. It is in the past that we remember who we are, who we were, and who we can be without deceiving ourselves. It is in a correct recollection of the past, even those things that may be unpleasant to remember, that we can see where we turned wrong and then right ourselves. Anything less than that and our egos will betray us and absolve ourselves of any responsibility making us incapable of any good work. Thus the struggle for equality and justice proceeds at a snail pace although inequality and injustice is evident all around us.

Here is my post if you would like read more into what you and I are both expounding on :" I also sent the link to you on twitter.

Additionally, I appreciate what you are doing brother. The number is far and few between of those of us that are attempting to carry forth the legacy we have inherited. There is still work to be done, and it is only by remembering rightly can be begin to look forward with a new vision emboldened with the success and failures from our past.

Also, I have a contemporary and good friend of mine you may be interested in connecting with. His name is Dan White Hodge. He just wrote his second book entitled "The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology" and his first book for his dissertation was on Tupac entitled "Heaven Has A Ghetto: The Missiological Gospel and Theology of Tupac Amaru Shakur". Good stuff brotha. Hope we can talk in the future. I followed you on twitter under josephlaboston.

Continued success!


Whitey Lawful said...


Martin Luther King was a black minister -and there was at one time a contrast between the black and white church. One adhered and preached autonomy the other communitarianism. I understand Martin Luther King's 'dream' to be one of Judaization and a socialism--steeped in racial amalgamation and a quest for ecumenism of religion and so forth. The white church has--popularly--went postmodern. May the black church remain as a vestige of tradition.


revolutionarypaideia said...

Very good piece! It's important to show this side of Dr. King.

Beyond The Political Spectrum said...

...which is a great reason for why people need to research and read for themselves, instead of allowing a publicly-crafted image to taint our perceptions of our leaders.

blackpeoplemeet said...

I'm excited to share even more activities and ideas with you! The first edition (happy dance!) comes out Sunday morning, December 11th! Here's a sneak peek of what's inside

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