To be honest I have always been ambivalent about Martin Luther King Day. It’s not because I didn’t think he was a great man. If anyone in my lifetime deserves an American holiday it is surely this man. There are two things though that bother me about the holiday. First, it reduces the civil rights movement to the actions of one man when it really wasn’t. This is of course in line with the American myth that it is only great people who move American history. The civil rights struggle, as probably every other event in American history, was very different from this. It was the result of ordinary people, performing ordinary acts with courage and determination. It wasn’t just Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama but hundreds of people who walked, hitchhiked, and carpooled every day for a year to boycott a bus system which made them sit in the back of the bus. It was children from six-year-olds to teenagers who desegregated schools by walking past mobs with faces contorted by hatred, people who spit on them, and many who yelled vile things. It was college students who sat in Woolworth lunch counters while crowds of people shouted epithets and poured condiments over them. It was freedom riders who rode buses and were beaten, shot at, arrested, and jailed for the simple act of riding a bus or trying to use a restroom or waiting area. It was people trying to walk across a bridge or along a road, but risking physical harm or death to do so. Ordinary people doing ordinary things with courage and determination. These as much as Dr. King are the real heroes of the civil rights movement and should get the honor and respect due them.

My second complaint about the holiday is that it has allowed Dr. King’s legacy to be controlled by politicians and mainstream media who have turned him into something he wasn’t. Nostalgia always turns the past into what suits the needs of the present and this has been especially the case with King. As the Broadway play Hamilton tells us, history is not just who lived and who died, but who tells your story. Note the story they tell on this day. Martin Luther King was a highly principled man who exposed the segregation which black people had to endure and led marches to bring about change. All this of course is true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, MLK was a spokesperson who preached nonviolence in the fight against racism and intolerance. There were some who were not nonviolent, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers come to mind, and they were an important part of the story. King’s memory is used to discredit them. Yes, the civil rights movement ultimately reached its apex in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1966. Racism however goes far deeper than what these remedies address.

In the last few years of his life King realized this too and turned his attention to the antiwar movement, income inequality and other ethnic groups. He saw that the growing defense budget was taking needed money from the social programs he supported. He saw that his vision of nonviolence needed to be extended to foreign affairs. He noticed that the hard-won gains in desegregation meant little if income inequality prevented people of color from having access to them. He heard the cries of police brutality and economic pain that his black critics were expressing. At the time of his death he was speaking out against the Vietnam War, he was planning a poor people’s demonstration in Washington, and he was bringing the media circus which followed him to a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis. In a speech delivered only months before he was killed he said,

it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

This side of King was less popular with the mainstream and is too often left out of the narrative that is told today.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached concern for others and standing up for what you believe is right, but he did more than that. He espoused the creation of a beloved community in which there would be no poverty because society would support all at a basic level of existence; there would be no racism because each would see the other as a brother or sister; there would be no war, not because people would live without conflicts, but because they would find non-violent ways to settle them. This beloved community was not some pie in the sky utopia for King, but an achievable goal if enough people adopted his belief in nonviolence.

King never thought that most people would support him because they were people of high moral character. As an African novel puts it “the beautiful ones are not yet born.” He undoubtedly thought that some would, but he also knew that others would support him only if they understood that their own self-interest would be enhanced if they did. It was part of his method to convince them that it would.

So, on his day let’s honor the real Martin Luther King Jr. and not some character that has been made up.

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2 Responses to “MLK Day 2017”

  1. Jeffrey Drummond says:

    Brilliant, as always, Randy. You capture the complexity of this great man.

  2. Randy says:

    Thanks Jeffrey. This is the beginning of a talk I am giving on MLK day to a senior citizens group. There is more to come.


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