One of the best ways to silence a dead revolutionary is to venerate him.
It’s a story as old as Jesus. If you say “Jesus is Lord” loud enough and often enough, you can march your armies into battle behind the symbol of the cross, ignoring all that nonsense like “resist not evil” and “turn the other cheek” and “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” You can forget everything he said about rich men and beggars (or camels), and explain away all that stuff about selling everything and giving the money to the poor. Instead, you can claim he really meant to preach a prosperity gospel, and then practice what you preach by living in a $10 million mansion. As Mark Twain wrote in his parody Battle Hymn of the Republic: “As Christ died to make us holy, let men die to make us rich.”
In my lifetime, something similar has been happening to Martin Luther King. We celebrate his birthday and make anniversaries of noteworthy events in his life, but by their very veneration the Powers That Be have sanitized Dr. King’s memory, removing everything they find threatening.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m happy that King has his own holiday and I believe the March on Washington and the “Dream” speech King gave there totally deserve the attention their 50th anniversary got this week. Much of what has been said and written about him this week (and is written every year in January) has been excellent. But in spite of those efforts, every year the real Martin Luther King — the “dangerous Negro” feared by the FBI — recedes further and further into the misty past. In his place, we are to often offered a dumbed-down King whose message can be claimed and co-opted by everyone this side of the KKK.
The co-opting of his character. In the public mind, Martin Luther King has been reduced to one sentence:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
And the meaning of that quote has been reduced to advocating a color-blind society. Worse, it has been reduced to advocating a consciously and legally color-blind society. (If your unconscious racism causes you to believe and repeat absurd allegations about a black president or a dead black teen, no problem. If the law does not mention race, but prosecutors and juries apply the law differently to whites and blacks, no problem.)
And so, conservatives often invoke Dr. King’s dream as an argument against color-aware policies like affirmative action — ignoring what King actually said in Why We Can’t Wait:
Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.
All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation.
They accuse President Obama of betraying King’s dream when he appoints blacks like Eric Holder or Hispanics like Sonia Sotomayor to positions of power. Even just by talking about race Obama “divides America“. That’s the “real” race problem — that we talk so much about race. Governor Jindal equates MLK’s dream with the “melting pot” image of America and then says
we still place far too much emphasis on our “separateness,” our heritage, ethnic background, skin color, etc. We live in the age of hyphenated Americans: Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Indian-Americans, and Native Americans, to name just a few.
Here’s an idea: How about just “Americans”? That has a nice ring to it, if you ask me. Placing undue emphasis on our “separateness” is a step backward. Bring back the melting pot.
Last Monday, Bill O’Reilly invoked Dr. King’s “content of their character” quote (and nothing else King ever said) and then proceeded to put his own views in Dr. King’s mouth, repeating against today’s black community and black leaders many of the same charges that were made against King and his followers 50 years ago: blaming racial inequality entirely on black failures, accusing black leaders of just being in it for the money (Haley raised that issue in the Playboy interview: “Many Southern whites have accused you of being among those who exploit the race problem for private gain. You are widely believed throughout the South, in fact, to have amassed a vast personal fortune in the course of your civil rights activities.”), and refusing to even recognize white racism as a problem. (O’Reilly’s objection to unions providing funding for the 50th anniversary celebration was particularly clueless, given that union support was central to the original March on Washington. Dr. King had a career-long relationship with the union movement. When he was killed in Memphis, he was in town to support a strike by local sanitation workers.)
Wednesday, talk radio’s Joe Walsh (the white ex-congressman) announced “My Own Dream for America“, which is basically that black people will finally straighten up and fly right (unlike Walsh himself, whose divorce featured an ugly legal battle over child support). It concludes:
I have a dream that one day black America will cease their dependency on the government plantation, which has enslaved them to lives of poverty, and instead depend on themselves, their families, their churches, and their communities.
So what was Martin Luther King really about? As I read him, two things:
- the goal of a world where all people have an opportunity to make something of their lives
- achieving that goal through nonviolent activism.
He was suspicious of capitalism, because its values are materialistic rather than humanistic.
When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. [“Beyond Vietnam“, 1967]
He was suspicious of a world order dependent on American economic and military power, because it continued many of the patterns of European colonialism.
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions. [“Beyond Vietnam“, 1967]
His compassion extended to all oppressed peoples, not just his own race.
Our destiny is tied up with the destiny of India, and of every other nation. I started thinking about the millions of dollars we spend each day to store surplus food, and I said to myself, I know where we can store that food free of charge—in the wrinkled stomachs of millions of God’s children in Asia, in Africa, in South America, and in our own nation who go to bed hungry. [Ware Lecture, 1966]
His nonviolence was not passive. He sought to confront issues rather than avoid them.
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. [“Letter from a Birmingham Jail“, 1963]
All through his career he rejected calls for patience.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” [“Letter from a Birmingham Jail“, 1963]
He warned against listening to premature claims that the goal had been reached.
A second myth that we must deal with is that of exaggerated progress. [Ware Lecture, 1966]
He rejected the idea that peaceful ends could be achieved through violent means.
There are still those who sincerely believe that the end justifies the means, no matter what the means happen to be. No matter how violent or how deceptive or anything else they are. Non-violence at its best would break with the system that argues that. Non-violence would say that the morality of the ends is implicit in the means, and that in the long-run of history destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends. [Ware Lecture, 1966]
What I don’t believe he ever said. I’m not an MLK scholar and my reading is far from complete, but I have never run across an example of Dr. King airing the dirty laundry of the black community in front of whites. So if he were to give another Dream speech today, I very much doubt he’d finger-wag about the black illegitimacy rate or denounce hip-hop culture, as white conservatives fantasize he would. I don’t know whether he would raise those topics while preaching in a black church or in private discussions among blacks, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t do it for a national audience.
I also have not found any quote where he says it’s OK to mistreat people if they’re not perfect, or that massive and growing inequality is OK if the underclass deserves it. When he was part of the overclass — say, as an American talking to other Americans about Vietnam or India — he didn’t give his own group a pass and focus on the failings of Asian culture. So I’m pretty sure that a 2013 Dream speech would not tell whites to just sit back and criticize while waiting for the black community to fix itself.
Color-blindness revisited. In Dr. King’s day, segregation was a primary instrument of injustice, a way of keeping whites on top. He opposed it on those terms. But he attended the historically black Morehouse College, and I haven’t found any record of him urging his alma mater to achieve a more representational racial balance by recruiting whites. That’s only hypocrisy if you imagine that racial balance is supposed to be an end in itself and not a means to the end of justice. Morehouse had a mission that was not being served by the white universities, and the cause of justice would not have been advanced by abandoning it.
Dr. King often talked about his dreams, visions, and goals — most clearly in his final Mountaintop speech, where he said “I’ve seen the Promised Land.” But he never said that we should just sit down where we are and pretend we’re in the Promised Land now. Someday the lion will lie down with the lamb, but no shepherd should try to implement that arrangement now. In the world where we live today, race matters — just like gender matters and class matters. It would be foolish to pretend that they don’t and blind ourselves to the problems that need to be solved.
The 2013 Dream. What would Martin Luther King say in a Dream speech today? We should all be humble about putting words in his mouth that he didn’t say in his lifetime. But looking at the words he did say, I think it’s not too big a stretch to imagine that he would still be talking about the same themes. Because while we’ve fixed some of the specific injustices he campaigned against — like blacks being forced to the back of the bus — the larger issues are still the same: We live with massive inequality. The poor both here and in other countries often have few prospects for improving their lot. The overclass continues to be disproportionately white and the underclass disproportionately non-white. Systemic inequality is enforced by systemic violence and threats of violence, and more violence is unlikely to lead to justice.
So I think Dr. King would still be telling us about injustice and urging us to meet that injustice with the moral force of active nonviolence. In the short run that strategy always looks like a loser, because violent people hit you and you don’t hit back. That’s why the nonviolent activist needs a longer vision of a universe whose arc bends towards justice, and of a Promised Land worth the arduous journey.
That’s why the activist needs a dream — not to live in, but to keep striving towards.