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.
Posted by negrointellectual at 9:49 AM