This year we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on January 18 with a national holiday that commemorates his life and his life’s work as a champion of civil rights and peaceful conflict resolution. While his accomplishments are viewed within the context of oppression, pain, and suffering, many people don’t know about the painful personal struggles and incredible mental strain he experienced. The incredible legacy Dr. King built is about equality and justice. But that legacy required incredibly hard fought victories within his own mind and the minds of millions of others.
Tavis Smiley, PBS talk show host and author of Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year (with co-author David Ritz; Little, Brown and Company) details the shift that occurred following King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967 until his assassination exactly one year later.
There is a tendency to forget that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was actually a real person, with human strengths and weaknesses. Dr. King’s struggles loom huge in our history, but so much of his journey is the lonely story of a person fighting isolation, stress, and depression. One of the most pivotal stories in modern American history is in some ways a story about mental health. Smiley explained in an interview following the release of his book, that he wants the world to understand the complexity of King’s character, not just the sanitized version we think of today. “We really come to know who we are in the dark and difficult days of our lives. If you think you know Dr. King and you have not come to know him in the darkest, most difficult days of his life, then you don’t yet know Dr. King.”
Smiley explained how King was rejected by his allies and supporters, including President Johnson and colleagues from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, after he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and identified what Smiley refers to as “the triple threat of racism, poverty and militarism.” During that year, Smiley added, the list of those who came out against King included the NAACP and Roy Wilkins, a prominent activist with the organization; Whitney Young of the Urban League; Ralph Bunche, the only other black Nobel Peace Prize winner; Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.; and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
King not only faced death threats from racists but was the target of an FBI campaign led by J. Edgar Hoover that included anti-King editorials which newspapers ran as their own. “The FBI also sent [him] letters encouraging him to commit suicide,” Smiley said.
The point of writing the book, Smiley explained, is to acknowledge how King persevered despite these tremendous odds, and to highlight how his own humanity (rather than the iconic persona) makes his accomplishments all the more worthy of honor. “He navigates a world where everything is trying to crush him, but he continues to tell his truth, continues to love, continues to serve. He doesn’t get bitter, doesn’t get vengeful. He continues to love people. He doesn’t demonize his haters. He actually feels sorry for his haters. He’s praying for his detractors.” (Lindley, 2014)
For the vast majority of us, our day-to-day struggles don’t even approach the level of strain that Dr. King experienced. But there’s a powerful lesson in better understanding his struggle and how it relates to our own lives.
Often, we hide our true feelings if we feel different or inadequate in some way. Showing your true self can be intimidating if you feel you are being judged. For those who suffer from depression or anxiety, the stakes are far higher.
“[Depression] magnifies your sense of shame, making sure you believe that no one could understand or care about your struggles. You can easily imagine rejection and ridicule for speaking up,” says Erika Krull, MSEd, LMHP. Depression pushes you to accept isolation rather than risk judgment. This isolation is anathema to healthy relationships. Those healthy relationships, however, are necessary for overcoming depression. “If you have a few people in your life who are genuinely concerned for your well-being, then hold on to them. They are a priceless part of your life and depression recovery.” (Krull, 2013)
Dr. King experienced rejection on a scale we really can’t comprehend. But he continued to reach out and engage with people none the less. The greatness Dr. King (with all his human frailties) achieved would have been impossible had he not persevered within his own mind.
Most of us are not in the international spotlight. Our day jobs don’t typically involve fighting inequality or ending wars. Most of us don’t receive death threats and hate mail. But we are all humans, as was Dr. King. Millions upon millions of people struggle with severe depression and anxiety every day, as did Dr. King. His perseverance over incredible mental and emotional strain was essential to what he achieved, and our own perseverance is crucial in our lives. Depression, anxiety, and isolation present seemingly insurmountable barriers to leading meaningful lives. Dr. King’s legacy is an incredible example of how we can overcome those barriers within ourselves.
January 18, 2016 is Dr. Martin Luther King Day. It’s a day to look at a colossal figure in American history, his struggles, and his legacy. It can also be something else for those struggling with depression; a day to be inspired by a person who overcame incredible mental health challenges. Dr. King leaves a legacy of fighting for justice and equality not with anger, but with love and empathy. That same legacy can apply to mental health. Dr. King’s example can guide us in our internal struggles even as it guides the world in seeking equality and harmony.
If you are suffering from depression, consider the resources you have to overcome it. Dr. King’s example is an incredible inspiration, but the knowledge and resources regarding mental health are far more comprehensive today. Reach out. Whether it’s a trusted friend, family member, or therapist, the best means of keeping depression from controlling your life is to engage with people.
If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject, or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.
Lindley, R. (2014) MLK’s Final Year: An Interview with Tavis Smiley, History News Network. Retrieved on January 12, 2016 from https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/157350#sthash.dC3HU4Hq.dpuf
Krull, E. (2013). Social Support Is Critical for Depression Recovery. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 13, 2016, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/social-support-is-critical-for-depression-recovery/
Lyons, N. (2015). Do You Isolate During Depression?. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 13, 2016, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/embracing-balance/2015/11/do-you-isolate-during-depression/