This week was Martin Luther King Day, which is a really important day. We absolutely should celebrate the life and work of Dr. King. But it always irks me a little (okay, a lot) to see white people on Facebook throw up out-of-context quotes from MLK without any thought to what his work was about or what he was fighting for then go right back to straight up supporting systems of white supremacy in their everyday lives.
Now, I want to be very clear, here: I am not innocent. By virtue of being white I am complicit in white supremacy because I have benefited from those systems of white supremacy. I have to be aware of and fight the biases that I have been raised with every day. I am emmeshed in racism just as much as anyone else. But that is why it is so important to me take MLK seriously. As somebody who benefits from the systems he was fighting against it is my job to think about what he said and did and really take it to heart. He was talking to ME.
So enough whitewashing. He was not a cartoon figure with just one or two characteristics that made him a flat figure we can hang on to and pretend to understand. He wasn’t easy. And he certainly wasn’t comfortable. If you’re a middle-class white person and you’re completely comfortable with MLK I would venture to say you don’t get him at all. That’s why he was so unpopular when he was killed. In the 1960s just 1/3 of white Americans thought MLK was making life better for Black Americans. When he was assassinated 1/3 of people surveyed said he brought it on himself. The truth is, people who we love, admire, respect, and think highly of across the board don’t get assassinated. History has made him a beloved figure. But that wasn’t the case in 1968.
When people think of Martin Luther King, Jr. most people think of “I Have a Dream.” And there’s a good reason for that – it’s probably one of the best examples of oratory of the last 100 years. It starts out with a reference to the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln and talks about the Emancipation Proclamation in the first sentence. So it begins with the freedom of Black folks. But within a few sentences it turns on a dime and argues that 100 years later, Black people were not free. One of the things that makes this speech remarkable is its masterful use of metaphor. King talks about the “manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” drawing a direct line between the state of American Blacks in the 1960s to their slave ancestors from before the Civil War.
He says that in a way the protesters and marchers are at the capital to cash a check. He says when the founders wrote the founding documents they signed a promissory note that all people would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and America has defaulted. But he refuses to believe his country is bankrupt. So he is there to cash in.
And it is important to note he is there to do it immediately. He is not going to wait or be patient. He emphasizes the importance of “now.” Once again he uses powerful metaphors to make himself clear: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” But he speaks to his supporters clearly as well about methodology – the must not become bitter or violent. They are being met with physical force but theirs must be the work of the soul.
A part that appeals to many white people is when he says they cannot distrust all white people, as many of their white brothers and sisters have come to realize their destinies are intertwined. Nobody can walk alone.
But at the same time they can never be satisfied. They can never stop fighting for what is theirs. He knows some of them have suffered for the cause. But they cannot despair.
And here he gives us the refrain that made the speech unforgettable. He describes a dream where one day Black folk and White folk will live equally and in harmony. A dream where one day people will be judged for who they are and not what they look like.
He has a dream that quote “one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”2
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
And he ends with quoting two songs: “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and “Free at Last,” joining the musical traditions of white America with Black America to finish off the speech with poetry and rhythm.
Of all the speeches of the last century it is one of the most memorable and has the most lasting impact. It will probably the most well-known American speech of the last century and the most often quoted. People look to it for inspiration and guidance. For many people it defines the Civil Rights Movement.
But that is one moment of Dr. King’s career. If you base your understanding of MLK on that one speech you are doing a disservice to Dr. King and the movement. Yes, he had a dream – but it was bigger than just that moment. If you’re going to celebrate MLK Day, celebrate the man and his work, note a caricature of it.
In April of 1963, MLK was in jail in Birmingham and took it upon himself to respond to his critics and wrote a letter while he was sitting in his cell. What is notable about this letter is that it is not responding to his “racist” critics. It is responding to fellow clergy who supposedly support his goals but find his actions “unwise and untimely.” He’s responding to White people who claim to not be racist but are telling him this isn’t the right time or the right way to protest. He tells those who criticize him that he is very sorry that they deplore the demonstrations in Birmingham, but they don’t really express the same concern for the situations that led to the demonstrations. He says it is the white power structure that led to these demonstrations and that needs to be addressed. I think it is important to note the language King uses. King is talking about power structures – systems of power. Whiteness. Even in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement people were concerned about structural power.
King immediately tells his critics that the situation calls for direct action. The situation is desperate and requires immediate and direct work.
His detractors claim that protest is not the appropriate way to exact change, but that he should try “negotiation.” He agrees that negotiation is best. Which is the whole point of his actions. He says “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.” The whole purpose of a protest is to create tension. So much tension that you can’t look away. It’s not a successful protest if it doesn’t cause a problem. The word “crisis” is important, here. A protest is supposed to cause an insurmountable problem. Protest should be something that brings normal life to a halt.
His critics question the timing of his protests. But he says there is no good time. Never in the history of social movements have oppressors agreed with the timing of a protest or movement. That is in the nature of oppressors. “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” If you wait for the right time to protest, you will be waiting forever. This is part of creating a crisis. If it were a well-timed protest it wouldn’t cause the tension that direct action needs to cause. If direct action must cause a crisis then, by definition, it must be ill-timed. And there is not good time to cause tension. Direct action will always be ill-timed.
He addresses those critics who are concerned that he is willing to break the law. And he acknowledges that yes, he IS very ready to break the law. “One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all. “Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” This is, perhaps, the bitterest pill for the people of the establishment who see themselves as the “good ones” to swallow. If marginalized people clamor for justice, they sometime have to do so outside of the bounds of the law. The law has created a situation in which people are legally marginalized. In order to fight that people must, by needs, have to work outside of the law, because it is the law that has stratified them. When the law is what has created the systems of marginalization, you can’t work within the law to fix the problem.
In considering all of this, MLK comes to the conclusion that the most dangerous person to his cause is not the outright racist, but the White moderate. He says, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s (his word) great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” It is not those who stand in direct opposition to the cause that do irreparable harm, but those who tacitly agree with the cause, then question the tactics, timing, motivation, and actions of the movement in favor of propriety, respect, timing, appropriateness, or civility. It is those who say they support the cause in their rhetoric but support the systems in their actions and beliefs who are the biggest stumbling blocks. Those who say, “I believe in equality, but this really isn’t the right time or place or way to protest.” Those are the real stumbling blocks to progress.
Dr. King had no patience for White people who didn’t support protest or had the audacity to tell Black folks “the right way” to protest. Dr. King wasn’t interested in what was legal and what wasn’t. Dr. King wasn’t interested in placating White people to make them feel good about their support of the movement when they were really supporting systems of oppression. Dr. King was not here for your nonsense.
Finally, we can’t ignore Dr. King’s radical stances on economic systems and militarism. MLK was for peace and prosperity – at EVERY level. And that didn’t mesh with the American way of life. It still doesn’t. This led him to say things like, “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism,” in a speech to the SCLC Board in 1967.
MLK was leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, which was a march or a movement for economic justice. The constituents were motivated by the idea that all people should have what they need to live. The Poor People’s Campaign challenged some of capitalism’s more self-interested, free market tenets and presented a communal vision for America as opposed to a hyper-individualized one.
In 1967 MLK was speaking many uncomfortable truths. His famous speech “A Time to Break Silence” rocked white, patriotic audiences with his hard stances on Vietnam on American attitudes toward consumption and capital.
MLK spoke to those who didn’t believe the causes of peace activism and civil rights mixed. He spoke to those who thought he was hurting the cause of Black Americans. And he spoke to those who questioned why he would join the voices of dissent about the war. And he told them if he questioned them, it saddened him, because it meant they did not understand him or the world in which they lived.
He observed that the war was much more harmful to the poor than it was to the privileged. It was the poor who were sent to fight and die overseas. It was young Black men who had already been crippled by a racist society and were being sent 8000 miles away to fight for liberties in Southeast Asia that they were denied at home. Black and White men were fighting and dying together in Vietnam who could not sit together sit together in the same school or live on the same block in Chicago. And he could not be silent in the face of that kind of manipulation of the poor.
He spoke of young men who he had plead with to remain peaceful at home. He had told them violence, rifles, and bombs would not solve their problems. And they said, “What about Vietnam?” Wasn’t America using violence to solve its problems? And that question hit home. And he knew he could never speak out against violence at home until he spoke out against the violence of his own government.
His religion called him to speak on behalf of those in Vietnam. Christ came for all, not just Americans and not just for capitalists. And he was called to speak for the voiceless in America – and that included the enemy.
He goes into a realistic history of Vietnam, instead of an Americentric one. He says the Vietnamese must see us as “strange liberators,” since they declared their independence and we decided to support France in her reconquest of her former colony. From 1945-1954 we denied them independence. Many of the indigenous people there viewed us as the occupiers and the enemy, as they learned to avoid our bombs and our poisoned water. Dr. King’s description of America was not as the heroic protector or savior, but as the occupier. He said we had destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the village and the family. We had destroyed their land and their crops. So was it surprising that they thought of us as cruel invaders?
He suggested five things that the government should do:
- End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
- Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
- Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
- Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and any future Vietnam government.
- Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement.
Finally, he called upon his listeners to consider the effects of capitalism on America and the intersection of capitalism and violence.
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. 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….
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”
If we were to honor MLK’s full legacy we would be fighting for a less militant society, a more communal, less hyper-individualized society that protected the poor, and a society that challenged SYSTEMIC racism, not just individual interactions. So why is this whitewashed version of MLK all we know?
Because the comfortable, milquetoast MLK version that is taught to white children across America protects white systems of power. If white children were taught that the man who is considered one of the greatest Americans of the last 100 years was anti-military, anti-capitalism, and anti-racist in the most progressive sense, what would that do to entrenched power structures?
And the story of Dr. King always seems to end with the Voting Rights Act. We never hear of the last few years of his career when he was fighting to end poverty or the Vietnam War. That’s a calculated choice. If we focus on King’s efforts to end segregation and expand voting rights, then he succeeded. There’s no need for further work to be done. If we tell the full story of his fight, then we would have to acknowledge that there was still unfinished work – that we still had a fight ahead of us. But if we only tell the parts of the story where he was fighting against segregation and for voting rights then we can say the good guys won (on paper – we all know segregation and voter suppression is alive and well). If we acknowledged his work went unfinished then we would have to admit there was still a job for us to do.
I thought it was important to focus on Dr. King today for a few reasons. One, as I noted, this week was his birthday, and if there is any birthday to celebrate as a nation this seems like a good candidate.
But this year it is more poignant than that. This podcast was released early Wednesday morning, on inauguration day. A 2am, to be precise. So I don’t know what has happened between the time this podcast was released and the inauguration of President Elect Joe Biden. But I know the nation is on pins and needles right now thinking about it. And it’s not just the general excitement of a new president. We are terrified because violent forces have threatened to make this a day of terror not just in our nation’s capital but in state capitals around the country. And it is important to note these aren’t just random, unstable people – they are Trump supporting white supremacists who wish to overthrow the elected government.
That’s important to note on MLK day because MLK warned us about systems of white power and these are people who are willing to use violence to see those systems of white power maintained. There are people operating in our country, just as they were during MLK’s time, who are willing to fight and kill to maintain structural, systemic white power in this nation. And they are holding us all hostage today. So this MLK day it seemed especially important to be mindful of his whole message, not just the easy parts.
So whatever happens this week, please think about the systems we all inhabit and how we enforce or resist them.
And do good work.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.
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