Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said on Monday that Martin Luther King Jr. was "divisive" in his time, as he sought to remind the public what the famous civil rights leader really stood for.
"Almost every American alive knows the words 'I have a dream' should be associated with Martin Luther King," Johnson said in a speech at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. "How many Americans know what Martin Luther King actually fought for and died for?"
Johnson alluded to the violent reaction that often met protests led by King.
"The reality is that, in his time, the man we honor today with a national holiday was divisive; to many, he was a troublemaker, to force the social change we now all celebrate," Johnson said. "When Dr. King arrived in many of the same cities for which a major street is now named for him, the mayor and the police commissioner viewed his visit with dread and couldn’t wait for him to leave."
"For his efforts, the man we honor with a national holiday and a national monument, alongside Washington and Lincoln, was the target of racist insults, bricks, bottles, numerous death threats, a knife in the chest in Harlem in 1958, and finally, an assassin’s bullet in Memphis in 1968," Johnson added.
Johnson is a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, which is also King's alma mater. He recalled that there were still Morehouse faculty members who had taught King when Johnson arrived on campus in 1975.
Beyond King's famous civil rights marches, Johnson pointed to his work fighting poverty, opposing the Vietnam War and advocating world peace. King went to Memphis, Tenn., in his final days not for a civil rights march but for a garbage workers strike, Johnson recalled.
"The irony of today is that Mrs. King’s dream of a national holiday for her husband has become a reality; Dr. King’s dream of a world at peace with itself has not," Johnson said.
The Homeland Security secretary, however, cited as hopeful examples "the healthcare worker who risks her health life to treat the Ebola patient in West Africa, the people who have responded to the terrorist attack in Paris with the words 'not afraid,' and the scores of people who take this day off from work, to go to work performing a community service.
"On this day in 2015, in the name of Martin Luther King, we must rededicate ourselves to a better world," Johnson said, "in which God’s children choose to feed the hungry, care for the sick, clothe the naked, choose conciliation over confrontation, brotherhood over hatred, and peace over war."