For Black History Month, Remember the True MLK
As we find ourselves in the midst of Black History Month -- a brief respite from the much whiter version of history we learn and celebrate the rest of the year -- and having recently commemorated another Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, perhaps it would do us well to reflect on the vision of this man, whom so many claim as their hero, but whose message so few seem truly to understand.
This year, as with the previous ten, I once again had the pleasure of addressing a number of audiences during January MLK-related events on campuses and in communities across the country. Much of my presentation was the same as always, focused on reminding the audience of the substantial unfinished business in the ongoing fight against racism. But there was also at least one significant difference. This year, the U.S. is at war, having been engaged in bombing one of the poorest nations on Earth since October.
Given Dr. King's commitment to non-violence, even in the face of attack by others, I felt obliged to mention the likely opposition to said bombing that would have been part of King's current message were he still alive. King, after all, understood terrorism and faced it down regularly. Yet he did so without resort to arms, knowing that rarely if ever has true peace, security or justice been won at gunpoint.
Those who would claim that fanatical racists were (or are) any less dangerous than Osama bin Laden and his minions, never fished black bodies out of rivers in Mississippi, nor picked up the pieces of bombed out churches. They have forgotten the swollen face of Emmett Till, the bullet-ridden car of Viola Liuzzo, or what Billie Holiday called the "strange fruit" found hanging from tree limbs, surrounded by conscience-numbed whites, admiring their craft the way others might gaze upon paintings in the Louvre.
The fact that Dr. King in his last years had come to the painful recognition that his own government "was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" was worth mentioning, or so I thought.
Needless to say, many in my audiences felt otherwise. Although virtually all the persons of color responded to such remarks with agreement, for most whites, the mention of Dr. King's anti-militarism and condemnations of his own nation's actions abroad was more than they could handle. Many were angry, and some wrote letters in protest to those who had brought in a speaker like me to say such scandalous things.
They wanted the safe Dr. King. The pleasant Dr. King. The Dr. King who they seem to think would pat them on the head for breaking bread at a banquet dinner with black people. The Dr. King who they seem to think sought nothing more than a good, spirited chorus of Kumbaya, or perhaps a burger at the Woolworth's counter. In short, they wanted the Dr. King spoken of by their President, a man who had been too busy drinking with his Deke buddies at Yale to have personally lent his voice to the fight against racism, but who thinks nothing of invoking the good Doctor's name now.
That particular Dr. King -- the one with whom the nation's frat-boy in chief is more comfortable -- is one who, to listen to the President's speech about him, might as well have died in 1963. For Bush mentioned not one word of King's activities, nor quoted him at all from any speech or writing in the last five years of his life -- and with good reason. For it was during those years that King raised serious questions about the moral propriety of capitalism, and insisted, "any nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
For much of white America, accepting Dr. King and celebrating him is something they seek to do on their own terms, not his. They accept part of the man, and part of his message, but not all of it. They certainly don't wish to acknowledge King's decided lack of support for nationalistic patriotism the likes of which we have seen since September 11. To wit, his claim in December of 1967 that "our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation. This means we must develop a world perspective."
Of course, rejecting the totality of King's vision is nothing new for whites, most of whom never did like the Reverend all that much. In 1963, two-thirds of whites polled said that King and the movement were pushing for too much, too soon. Now, of course, white America embraces the King of 1963, because he seems so safe and ecumenical. And with the luxury of thirty-four years in the grave, they needn't worry that he will be correcting them for their conditional support anytime soon.
But even accolades for the early King are hardly rooted in a clear understanding of what the man stood for. For most whites, all they know of King is the "I Have A Dream" speech, and even then not all of it, but rather one line, taken out of context and interpreted as a simple plea for color-blindness.
It is that Dr. King whom conservatives, for example, have convinced themselves would have opposed affirmative action programs, another myth that whites in my holiday audiences weren't too happy to hear exploded.
A few weeks ago, I delivered an MLK day address at Dakota State University. Afterward, an irate math professor who hadn't attended the talk, but watched a portion of it on the internet, e-mailed the staff member who had sponsored my visit to complain. After the staffer relayed the professor's comments to me, I engaged him in a few rounds of e-banter. One of his concerns was my statement that King would have supported affirmative action, and even reparations for the history of slavery and Jim Crow, a position he insisted was not at all certain, and which he sought to rebut via an archived discussion board post from David Horowitz, the resident gasbag at FrontPageMag.
Horowitz, who relies on financial support from the kind of right-wing conservatives who despised King and actively opposed the civil rights movement, claims that King detested any programs of "racial preferences" and would have been a sworn enemy of affirmative action. Of course, David also claims to be a true apostle of King, even while proudly displaying links for websites that allow one to slap cartoon likenesses of Hillary Clinton and Osama bin Laden, so the fact that he utterly miscomprehends the man he claims to consider a hero should come as no surprise. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Horowitz recently referred to me as "intellectual scum," but I will refrain from returning the insult, seeing as how such an ad hominem would hardly apply to David, unless preceded by the modifier, "anti."
Of course, even Horowitz can read, as can Dinesh D'Souza, Clint Bolick, Shelby Steele, and any number of other conservative writers, all of whom have made the same claims about King's color-blind approach to civil rights, and what they insist would be his certain opposition to color-conscious remedies for discrimination, like affirmative action. Given the basic literacy that one assumes attaches to all of these fine folks, their continued repetition of the King-as-opponent-of-affirmative-action ruse demonstrates a nearly mind-boggling display of bad faith and intentional subterfuge.
For King himself was clear, as much as some would deny it. In 1961, after visiting India, King praised that nation's "preferential" policies that had been put in place to provide opportunity to those at the bottom of the caste system, and in a 1963 article in Newsweek, King actually suggested it might be necessary to have something akin to "discrimination in reverse" as a form of national "atonement" for the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.
The most direct articulation of his views on the subject are found in his 1963 classic, Why We Can't Wait. Therein, King discussed the subject of "compensatory treatment," and explained:
Whenever this issue is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but 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.In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King argued:
A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.Furthermore, King was clear as to what that "something special" might entail. In 1965, during an interview with Playboy, King stated his support for billions of dollars of direct aid to black America -- and not only the poorest of the poor -- even though some might consider it "preferential treatment." As King explained:
For two centuries the Negro was enslaved and robbed of any wages: potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America's wealth could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation.Also at this time, King helped lead "Operation Breadbasket," which threatened consumer boycotts against private employers who didn't hire blacks in rough proportion to their numbers in the community population. Such an effort went even further than affirmative action, since such programs don't require proportional representation in any workplace or school -- only good faith efforts, aimed at meeting what are considered reasonable goals for improved representation. And yet folks like Horowitz blast these kinds of pressure tactics against corporations as "shakedowns" when utilized by Jesse Jackson or the NAACP.
For some, however, no amount of evidence will suffice. My detractor from the Dakota State Math Department -- whose e-mail also included strangely out-of-place remarks about U2 being the only band worth listening to -- found my use of quotes from Dr. King irrelevant, and actually derided them by implying that quotes from someone don't actually indicate what they think, an interesting and counterintuitive kind of thing for a logician such as teaches math to say.
Of course, one can choose to disagree with King and current supporters of affirmative action and reparations. Many do, and those debates can and should be joined openly and honestly. Certainly it is not automatically the case that simply because Dr. King supported such efforts that such programs are ipso facto desirable. But regardless of one's conclusion about the legitimacy of affirmative action or reparations it seems only fair to insist that one present King's views honestly and not attempt to use his words for purposes he would have found unacceptable. If David Horowitz and his ilk wish to oppose affirmative action, so be it. But if they are desperate for a posthumous spokesperson, they will have to make do with the likes of George Wallace. Dr. King is already taken.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer, lecturer and antiracism activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.