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Stealing the Prophet's Mantle


By Adam J. Levitin

In the Passion according to Kathleen Neal Cleaver, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held a sort of Last Supper before his murder in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968. Invited to dine at King's table were his "disciples," including Black Power activist Stokely Charmichael and several leaders of the Black Panther Party, including Cleaver herself. In a kitschy, if tongue-in-check scene, the prophet's mantle was passed from King to the apostolic Panthers, but instead of bread and wine, there were "hot peppers," the true food of revolutionaries.

Like many other aging '60s firebrands, Cleaver, the keynote speaker at Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. memorial service, has moderated her tone and perhaps her message. But the former communications secretary of the Black Panther Party, who is now an assistant professor of law at Emory University, did seek to justify her past Black Panther activism by appropriating the respect accorded to King and transforming it into a legitimization of her message of militant resistance, a message that King explicitly rejected.

Unlike the rest of the service, Cleaver's address was completely contrary to the spirit and values of King, and unbefitting his memory. In Cleaver's rendering of the civil rights movement, King's assassination was only a minor occurrence, which foreshadowed the main story of the Oakland police department's persecution of the Black Panther Party. (Cleaver ridiculously equated to the persecution in Nazi Germany.) And the extent to which Cleaver's address focused on her ex-husband, Eldridge Cleaver, wounded in a shoot-out with Oakland police, was enough to make one think it was actually Eldridge Cleaver Day.

Cleaver claimed that the King who is usually remembered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a toned-down King, made palatable to white America. Besides the Last Supper anecdote, Cleaver's evidence for this was an audio tape with three excerpts from unidentified speeches by King, in which he referred to himself as a "revolutionary."

Making a questionable connection, Cleaver claimed that King's undefined usage of the word "revolutionary" meant that he supported the Black Panther Party's program of political revolution.

Of course, King was indeed a revolutionary in certain ways. He was not satisfied with the status quo. He was the fountainhead of a major change in American attitudes on race. Indeed, America's current awareness of its racial problems owes much to King; before his leadership of the civil rights movement, most white Americans gave little or no thought to issues of race. To be sure, King held views that could be called revolutionary.

But the true revolution King sought was a change in American racial attitudes, one that would allow black Americans the same opportunities as whites. King never advocated anything close to the Black Panthers' violent program of political revolution.

King has long represented the very best in America's on-going attempt at racial healing and equality. He is respected precisely because of his means and demeanor. Unlike the militant Black Panther Party, King sought sought integration, not separation. He wanted to be part of America and partake of its opportunities.

This is why King worked through non-violent protest and within the American legal system, not against it.

Even though the work of King centered primarily around the civil rights movement as it pertains to the rights of black Americans, King would not be remembered as a national hero, as a voice of national conscience, if his work did not transcend the problems facing American blacks and touch a nerve of human morality.

However, just as it is wrong for Cleaver to attempt to appropriate King's memory to justify her militant past, it would also be wrong to denude King's legacy of its specifically black heritage and circumstances. At a service in his memory, of all occasions, King's legacy should not be reduced to a senseless justification for past calls for political revolution.

Adam J. Levitin '98, a Crimson editor, is a history concentrator.

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