The King in All of Us
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been 77 on Sunday. He has been dead for 38 years.
As his living memory fades, replaced by a feel-good "I have a dream" whitewash that ignores much of what he stood for and fought against, it is more important than ever to recapture the true history of Dr. King -- because much of what he fought against is resurfacing, or still with us, today.
King was, along with Mohandas Gandhi, one of the most internationally revered symbols of nonviolence in the 20th century. He spent his too-brief adult life defying authority and convention, citing a higher moral authority, and gave hope and inspiration for the liberation of people of color on six continents.
MLK, Jr. Day, the holiday, has devolved into the Mississippi Burning of third Mondays. What started out as gratitude that they made a movie about it, gradually becomes revulsion at how new generations of Euro-Americans mislearn the story.
King is not a legend because he believed in diversity trainings and civic ceremonies, or because he had a nice dream. He is remembered because he took serious risks and, as the Quakers say, spoke truth to power. King is also remembered because, among a number of brave and committed civil rights leaders and activists, he had a flair for self-promotion, a style that also appealed to white liberals, and the extraordinary social strength of the black Southern churches behind him. And because he died before he had a chance to be widely believed a relic or buffoon.
What little history TV will give us to commemorate his birthday is as much about forgetting as about remembering, as much about self-congratulatory patriotism -- that King was American -- as self-examination, that American racism made him necessary, and that government, at every level, sought to destroy him.
We hear "I have a dream"; we don't hear his powerful indictments of poverty, the Vietnam War, and the military-industrial complex. We see Bull Connor in Birmingham; we don't see arrests for fighting segregated housing in Chicago, or the years of beatings and busts before he won the Nobel Peace Prize. We don't hear about the mainstream American contempt at the time for King, even after that Peace Prize, nor the FBI harassment or his reputation among conservatives as a Commie dupe.
We don't see retrospectives on King's linkage of civil rights with Third World liberation. We forget that he died in Memphis lending support for a union (the garbage workers' strike), while organizing a multiracial Poor Peoples' Campaign that demanded affordable housing and decent-paying jobs as basic civil rights transcending skin color. We forget that many of King's fellow leaders weren't nearly so polite. Cities were burning. We remember Selma instead.
And we forget that of those many dreams King had, only one -- equal access for nonwhites -- is significantly realized today. A half-century after the Montgomery bus boycott catapulted a 26-year-old King into prominence, even that is only partly achieved. Blacks are being systematically disenfranchised in our presidential elections, and affirmative action and school desegregation are all but dead. Urban school districts across the country these days are as segregated and unequal as ever, and the imminent confirmation of Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court likely heralds a new era where employers and landlords can discriminate with near-impunity.
But an even bigger problem, as a generation dies off and the historical memory fades, is that Dr. King has become an icon, not a historical figure (distorted or otherwise). History requires context; icons don't. The racism King challenged four and five decades ago in Georgia and Alabama was also dominant throughout the country. Here in Seattle, few whites know that history: the housing and school segregation, laws barring Asians from owning land (overturned only in the '60s), the marches downtown from predominantly black Garfield High School, police harassment of both radical and mainstream black activists, the still-unsolved assassination of a local NAACP leader.
Every city in America has such histories. We don't know the stories of the people, many still with us, who led those struggles. And we rarely acknowledge that the overt racism of Montgomery 1955 is no longer so overt, but still part of America 2006. It shows up in our geography, in our jails, in our schools, in our voting booths, in our shelters and food banks, in our economy, and in the very earnest and extremely white activist groups that often carry the banner on these issues.
If our cities were serious about his legacy, Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. would run through downtowns, and there would be MLK, Jr. Elementary Schools in the suburbs. Instead, in just about every big city in the U.S., school districts and city councils put King back in the ghetto, along with both the legions of people who worked with him and the many more who've taken up his work since.
Opponents of affirmative action and racial equality can claim King's mantle and "if he were alive today" approval only because in 2006, pop culture's MLK, Jr. has no politics. And, for that matter, no faith. For white America, King's soft-focus image often reinforces white supremacy. See? We're not so bad. We honor him now. Why don't those black people just get over it, anyway? We did.
All that is a lie. Dr. King's vision is today as urgent as ever. While Jim Crow and the cruelties of overt segregation are now largely unimaginable, much remains to be done. And for those who carry King's banner, the challenges of apathy and official hostility remain the same: the FBI and NSA spying on peace groups, listening to phone calls, monitoring emails. An administration -- voted for by almost no African-Americans -- that reviles nonviolence and labels its critics as treasonous (rather than communist dupes). And the moral outrage of Americans that made King's work so politically effective? We don't do that anymore. We can torture thousands of mostly innocent Iraqis and Afghans in plain sight, and nobody is held accountable. It'd take a whole lot more than Bull Connor's police dogs to make the news today.
The saddest loss in the modern narrative of Dr. King's career is the story of who he was: a man without wealth, without elected office, who managed as a single individual to change the world simply through the strength of his moral convictions. His power came from his faith and his willingness to act on what he knew to be right. That story could inspire many millions to similar action -- if only it were told. We could each be Dr. King.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolent martyr to reconciliation and justice, has become a Hallmark Card, a warm, fuzzy, feel-good invocation of neighborliness, a file photo for sneakers or soda commercials, a reprieve for post-holiday shoppers, an excuse for a three-day weekend, a cardboard cutout used for photo ops by dissembling Cabinet members and ungrateful Supreme Court justices. Be sure to check out the Three-Day-Only White Sale at Wal-Mart. Always a better price. Always.
King deserves better. We all do.