Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

MLK, Jr.: Nonviolent Radical for Our Time

mlk_gandhi.jpgToday is the official U.S. holiday for the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (15 January 1929-04 April 1968) who was assassinated 40 years ago this coming April. In the generation which has passed in the meantime, King has been tamed: turned into “the Dreamer.”  Though more biographies and studies of his life and work have been written than with any other African-American leader (itself a disservice to the hundreds of leaders and thousands of forgotten participants in the so-called “Civil Rights” movement), few Americans know anything about King other than the first 4 words of his most famous speech, “I have a dream,” delivered as the climax of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Almost no one could summarize much of the contents of that dream–beyond vagaries like “racial harmony.”  So, although its rhetoric is among the most stirring political speeches in the English language, count me among those who call for a moratorium on the Dream Speech–and, more importantly, a moratorium on the icon of “King the Dreamer.”  A part of my Ph.D. dissertation was on King and I have written one slim book on the civil rights movement, so I know what I am talking about when I say: The Real Martin Luther King, Jr. was far more radical than the icon–and it is the radical King whom we need to recover today.

King’s vision for U.S. society was always more than simply racial “integration.” He knew the system as it was then and is now was/is unjust and that Black assimilation into such a system would just make things worse.  He ALWAYS wanted to change the system beyond just ending the legal segregation–as important as that was.  But in the years following the Dream Speech, the radical dimensions of King’s vision became more pronounced:

  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a class warrior against an unjust economic system. Although he rejected many of the answers of Marxism, he found much of Marx’s critique of capitalism valid. Increasingly, he called himself a democratic socialist–of the kind he had found in Scandinavia when he journeyed to Oslo, Norway in 1964 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. (King’s Nobel Acceptance Speech should be required reading in all U.S. high schools.) He wanted American to turn from materialism (what he called a “thing oriented society”) to a person-centered society–a move that he called a “revolution of values.” During his last year of life, King was planning a different kind of March on Washington, as part of a massive “Poor People’s Campaign” that would unite African-Americans, Latino/as, Native Americans, and poor whites (especially from Appalachia and Mississippi–America’s 3rd World, then and now) and demand the kinds of changes that would abolish poverty–though he knew it would cost a huge amount of money. King himself took only $1 per year as salary for leading the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a modest salary as a pastor. He donated most of his speaking fees to the SCLC.  He divided up his Nobel Prize money between the 4 largest civil rights organizations–and his wife, Corretta, had to demand that he set aside a small amount in a fund for his kids’ education.  He constantly linked the fortunes of African-Americans with the strength of the Labor movement. When he was assassinated in Memphis on 04 April 1968, he was helping out a campaign for the rights of city garbage workers. 
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was committed to peacemaking. As his “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” essay makes clear (you can find it reprinted as a chapter in Why We Can’t Wait (1964) and in his book of sermons, Strength to Love (1965) ), he was not always a pacifist–not in his youth and early education.  And he began working with Gandhian nonviolence as a mere tactic in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but was prepared to use violent self-defense in his personal life. But this soon changed, under the influence of reading Gandhi and from pacifist interpretations of Jesus mediated to King by members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (especially the white Methodist preacher Glenn Smiley and the African American Quaker Bayard Rustin). Most people never understood this: They expected that King, as a good American and as one who wanted the alliance of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in passing civil rights legislation, would support the U.S. war effort in Vietnam–or, at least remain silent. He tried the latter. In the early days, Corretta spoke out far more against Vietnam than Martin did. (She was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom since her days at Antioch College, long before meeting Martin.) When he did speak out, many other civil rights leaders told him to be quiet and he tried to obey–until he could silence his conscience no longer and on 04 April 1967 (one year before his death) gave his famous “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech at the founding of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam at Riverside Church in NY. In that speech King said that he could never again tell young men in gangs to stop their violence if he didn’t confront the greatest purveyor of violence in the world–“my own government.” This lost him Johnson’s friendship and support and led J. Edgar Hoover to call King “the most dangerous Negro in America.”
  • The real King, unlike one of his daughters, was not homophobic. He did not speak out on gay rights–no one did in those days–but he knew that one of his closest advisors, Bayard Rustin, was gay.  After his death and the rise of the modern gay rights movement, Corretta Scott King championed it bravely.
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a complete contrast to Malcolm X or the later Black Power movement. Yes, King criticized the Black Power movement, but his criticism was not total and he sought to remain in dialogue with its leaders like Stokely Carmichael.  His chapter on black empowerment in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? criticizes the violent rhetoric and the separatism of the Black Power movement, but praises its emphasis on black self-sufficiency and Black Pride.

But the real Martin Luther King, Jr. was also no plastic saint. The icon is dangerous not only because it is tamed, but also because it makes King seem perfect–and thus an impossible standard for movement leaders. But the real King, despite his many sterling qualities, was human and flawed, as are we all.:

  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a chain smoker, though he kept it mostly off camera. He tried often to quit and failed. (This is somewhat more tolerated by Black Baptists in their pastors than by white Baptists, but it was still considered a major failing in many parts of Baptist life.)
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a faithful husband, but had several extramarital affairs–short and longterm.  We know of these mostly because the FBI bugged his hotel rooms and tried to use the tapes of him having sex to extort or scare both him and Corretta. But, sadly, friends and associates mostly tried to cover this up or apologize for it, rather than confront King as friends who were concerned about his marriage.  He needed a community of accountability and didn’t have one.
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a sexist who was always trying to keep Corretta from being an equal partner in both their marriage and in the movement. This was typical of most men of this pre-feminist era–indeed, the modern women’s movement can be traced to the dissents by the women, black and white, who were demeaned in the struggle for racial equality.
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was subject to depression and to doubts about himself, about God and his faith, and about the movement and his role in it. The confident face he showed to the world did not always reflect his doubts and struggles and wrestlings with himself and God.
  • The real Martin Luther King, Jr. could be high-handed, even dictatorial, in the way he ran the SCLC.  Other organizations, especially the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council (SNCC, pronounced “SNICK”) and their advisor, Ella Baker, dissented from this personality-driven approach to mass movements. The SNCC students often mocked King as “De Lawd,” and Baker’s slogan was “Strong People Don’t Need Strong Leaders.”

I think we need Martin Luther King, Jr. today as much or more than when he was taken from us 40 years ago. (He would have turned 79 last Tuesday.) But we don’t need King the tamed and perfect icon, King the Dreamer. We need the real, radical Martin King–both because our society needs this radical critique and much bolder vision, and because we need to develop new leaders without expecting that they will be either without flaws or always popular.  And we need to recover King in context: in the context of many others working for freedom and justice and peace–and some losing their lives for it.

We honor King’s memory not by taming it, but by letting it challenge us in all its radical fullness–and by taking up where King left off. We honor King best by rolling up our sleeves and getting into the risky work of justice and peacemaking.

January 21, 2008 - Posted by | Baptists, heroes, liberation, love of enemies, MLK, nonviolence, pacifism, progressive faith, race

5 Comments

  1. Great post, Michael. Especially after having read a few versions of the “tamed” King being “honored” at more conservative sites.

    As if you could honor a teacher but reject half (or more) of what he taught.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | January 22, 2008

  2. Interesting post. I wrote one on MLK on my own blog, if you want to check it out. It makes some of the same points that you do (though some of what you wrote was new information for me), only from a rightward orientation.

    I admire much that King did, but one question I have is this: Did he ever seriously criticize a Communist regime? He called the U.S. the greatest source of violence in the world. I can think of one that was worse: the Soviet Union.

    Comment by James Pate | January 23, 2008

  3. James, King was deeply critical of the Soviet Union, Communist China and of Communism, but in a spirit of “criticism, like love, begins at home” he was more vocal in criticizing the way fear of Communism was used to demonize any and all movements for social justice. You may be right that the USSR promoted more violence than the U.S. I say it’s a matter of DEEP and LASTING SHAME that we are even in the same ballpark!

    King, like later liberation theologians, used some insights from Marx while criticizing others. He had done the same with rightwing thinkers–using Hegel’s thesis/antithesis/synthesis thought pattern, for instance, while being deeply critical of Hegel’s authoritarianism. King’s embrace of democratic socialism was not modeled on any Marxist culture, but on what he saw in Norway and Sweden. He opposed violence wherever it was used and for whatever purpose it was used.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 23, 2008

  4. By the way, James, I try to read your blog because you visit this one, but I find it very hard to stomach. I feel so sorry for you because it is obvious that you are a good young man who has been deeply brainwashed.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 23, 2008

  5. I guess my stomach for liberalism is stronger than your stomach for conservatism.😉

    But, seriously, to be a conservative on college campuses takes a lot of independent thought. That’s hardly characteristic of someone who is brainwashed.

    But your reaction to my blog may also be based on the times that you visit. Today is more right-wing than other days. I have a lot of posts that are more “on the one hand…on the other hand.” Those would probably get on Ann Coulter’s nerves.

    Comment by James Pate | January 23, 2008


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