Monday, January 16, 2012

An Observation on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day


I often decry the sanitizing and beatification of MLK, Jr., because it makes him all conveniently palatable and ripe for consumption. It makes him safe for white people to admire and accept and celebrate.

But I don't often mention the flipside of what that means for his image. The quote above was written by one of my cousins. I've heard the same derision repeated by students in my classes. They think of MLK, Jr. as obsequious, unreal, too willing to compromise, the polar opposite of their image of the fierce, uncompromising Malcolm X (and I should talk about the construction of him at some point). They claim to respect MLK, Jr. and his work, but they feel that he could have gone farther and that he too easily said "what white people wanted to hear."

And, after a mental eye-roll and side eye, I ask them, can't they imagine, given all they've learned over the course of an "African American History from 1865 to the Present" class, that there would've been people who thought of him as uncompromising? Who didn't want to hear his messages of social and economic justice and equity? Who thought of him as a threat? I also ask them to define militant. Is it a term that has to be rooted in the willingness to take up arms?

Typically, I can at least get them to re-consider. But the idea that I, as a "progressive" historian, am considered the ridiculously "revisionist" one?

I think, in the future, I will have my students spend a few minutes juxtaposing my cousin's quote, their own perceptions, and this article by Fred Grimm, which notes:
The icon of the national holiday, the Disneyfied hero celebrated by school kids, a replica of the original made into someone palatable to business and civic leaders across the political spectrum, hardly resembles the righteous rabble-rouser who inflicted so much discomfort on the American establishment.


[M]odern powerbrokers, in their prosaic tributes, tend to forget the Martin Luther King Jr. whose causes would have a stinging resonance in 2012 America.

After a year when some political leaders have tried to gut public worker unions, they might find it a bit inconvenient to recall the Martin Luther King who was gunned down in Memphis in 1968 during a campaign to organize the city garbage workers.

In a time when the American middle class has noticed that the one percent was scarfing up an ever greater portion of the nation’s wealth, while its own relative buying power has been frozen since 1970, King’s demands for economic justice might seem just a bit too contemporary. (Someone might also notice that his movement’s Resurrection City, the shanty town protest against economic disparity, erected a month after his death, might as well been called Occupy Washington.)

Amid so much apprehension over the lack of judicial restraint in the use of roving wiretaps and other surveillance authorized in the Patriot Act extension signed by President Obama, our political leaders would rather forget about the Martin Luther King whose home, office and hotel rooms were bugged, for years, by the FBI. (J. Edgar Hoover explained the “unshackled” surveillance of King as a way to track, “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.”)

After a decade of war in Afghanistan, with that long, bloody, pointless diversion into Iraq, it’s doubtful that the we’ll hear our President or congressional leaders from either party quote from King’s anti-war speech in 1967, when he called the United States, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Certainly, the politicians behind the coordinated campaign in 14 states (including Florida) to enact new voting restrictions, would be vexed by the Martin Luther King who fought to bring voting rights to the disenfranchised.

And I will remind them that King himself acknowledged and accepted the fact that, in his time, he was considered "an extremist":
...though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. [...] The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? [...] Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

The one-dimensional, heroic caricature that we have made MLK, Jr., into does a disservice to the legacy of our creative extremists and the work of dissenters in shaping and re-shaping this country.

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Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...