Martin Luther King: Go faster, go further

I’ve spent some time this weekend reading about Martin Luther King Jr., both his work as well as some of what’s been written about him since his assassination 51 years ago. I’ve been thinking about his legacy, and what lessons we can learn from his life.

The MLK that we hold up today has been deified — and sanitized. The history taught in elementary schools has buried the real man, one who was much more complex and controversial during his life. Is this a subconscious attempt to tell ourselves and our children that the Jim Crow-era racial injustices King fought have been eradicated? Or is it meant to obscure the other injustices that still remain?

I managed to spend the first three decades of my life having not heard or read MLK’s words beyond the final third of the “I Have A Dream” speech or a few paragraphs from “Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” One of the main reasons he is so misunderstood in today’s age is that many American’s have never really heard any of his words other than those those ingrained in our mass consciousness by elementary school teachers, or used to sell trucks during the Superbowl.

King was often attacked during his life, not just by hate-spewing bigots, but also by moderate individuals and organizations that were protective of the status quo. The Birmingham letter itself was written in response to ‘An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense’, an open letter from several southern ministers and a rabbi who objected to the ways that Dr. King and his allies were pursuing their campaign of non-violence. “We respectfully urge those who strongly oppose desegregation to pursue their convictions in the courts, and in the meantime peacefully to abide by the decisions of those same courts,” they wrote. Slow down. King would have none of that, and penned his response while under arrest for “parading without a permit”: Go faster.

The parallels between this MLK and the tactics of the Movement for Black Lives and Colin Kapernick are obvious after familiarizing oneself with King’s sermons, speeches and written works. Those Americans accustomed to the pop-culture version of King, however, may be surprised to learn the extent of his radical militancy in matters of economic injustice, police brutality, as well as tenant, welfare, and labor rights. (One should not forget that he was assassinated in Memphis, supporting public sanitation workers organizing a labor union.)

Part of this mainstreaming of King was due to the contrast between him and black power proponents like Malcom X. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and other well-meaning liberals saw King as a moderating influence against black unrest. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, King turned his attention on Northern racism, the Vietnam War, and the Poor People’s Movement, and was subsequently abandoned. His strategy of non-violence was a useful antithesis for white society confronted by the Black Panthers, but King’s organizing against the war in Vietnam could not be tolerated.

Unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. and Hampton Heroes Plaza (Hampton, VA, 1/21/19)

Fifteen years after his death, the King Holiday legislation was signed into law by President Regan, and another version of King soon appeared: the color-blind conservative. “Not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” has become the cynical rallying cry of those opposed to that which King saw necessary to redress the grievances of hundreds of years of American apartheid: affirmative action, dignity for all workers, and a restructuring of the American economy through redistributive measures. They forget the man that said “our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.”

It’s perhaps this last version of King that is so opposed to his original spirit. It’s this version that leads to “perplexing” comments that King would be “appalled” by BLM; that leads a director to cast a white man as MLK in a play; that causes Vice President Pence to invoke King to defend President Trump’s wall proposal. Even the NRA got in on the action today, as did BP.

There’s one particular quote, from King’s Vietnam speech to Riverside Church — a warning — that is sadly relevant today: “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves […] attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.” While he may have been speaking about American imperialism abroad in this context, one can easily see the relevance to today’s mass movements after several years waiting for the ‘long arc of the moral universe’ to bend back. Years of Women’s Marches, the March For Our Lives, the March for Science, Occupy, &c… have left me wondering what it will take.

Reading more of the Vietnam speech, it’s easy to why the FBI considered him the most dangerous man in America. “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest,” he said. “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” MLK shared Frederick Douglass’s views on those who “favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation,” that “power concedes nothing with out a demand.”

This is what I’ve learned from Dr. King — his response to those that told him to slow down, to wait a bit longer: Go faster, go further.