Still celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.

At Pandagon, Jesse Taylor takes a cynical look the ritualized dismissal-by-praise that has come to accompany this week’s national holiday:

Martin Luther King Day is problematic. It’s problematic because it’s the leading edge of a bifurcation of King’s legacy into what can charitably be called the Disney King and the Real King. The Disney King is the one whose predominant message was a race-ignorant society where recognizing “the content of one’s character” was a command to ignore the entirety of America’s history with race. That King’s message was that a class of people, discriminated against on the basis of race, simply wanted the country to stop thinking about their race. Once that happened, discrimination would end, and the vicious psychological scars of slavery and Jim Crow and racial inequality would be healed. … And scene.

The Real King was a tremendously complex political figure despised by many, who fought for racial justice, and against Vietnam, and who accepted the Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood. He wasn’t a moderate pragmatist who just really wanted to be able to sit in the front of the bus – the man was, both by the standards of his day and of the present day, a leftist.

That notion of the safe, Disneyfied King is my main reason for answering “probably not” in response to Carl Gregg’s question: “Should MLK’s ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’ Be Added to the New Testament?

I think “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is far too important and inspired to subject it to all the indignities and abuses routinely inflicted on the 27 books of the New Testament canon in the name of reverence. I have too high a view of King’s epistle to the Alabamians to see it subjected to kind of treatment that “a high view of scripture” seems to entail.

Every January brings us a new set of columns purporting to tell us “What King would say about ________ if he were still alive today.” I’m leery of such arguments unless they’re grounded in what King already said about ________ when he still was alive. The Rev. Irene Monroe offers that grounding in “MLK Day Reflection for LGBTQ Justice in the Black Church.” Monroe’s argument is congruent with the trajectory and the long, bending arc of King’s thought.

Her argument echoes that made by Rep. John Lewis — someone who knew King better than most and who has earned the right to speak on his behalf. Lewis said:

Dr. King used to say when people talked about blacks and whites falling in love and getting married — you know one time in the state of Virginia, in my native state of Alabama, in Georgia and other parts of the South, blacks and whites could not fall in love and get married. And Dr. King took a simple argument and said races don’t fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married. It’s not the business of the federal government, it’s not the business of the state government to tell two individuals that they cannot fall in love and get married. And so I go back to what I said and wrote those lines a few years ago, that I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up and fight and speak out against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And you hear people “defending marriage.” Gay marriage is not a threat to heterosexual marriage. It is time for us to put that argument behind us.

You cannot separate the issue of civil rights. It is one of those absolute, immutable principles. You’ve got to have not just civil rights for some, but civil rights for all of us.

Some other highlights from the blogosphere celebrating King below the jump:

Charlie Pierce reminds us of what a president can do when citizens like those rallied by Martin Luther King Jr. force that president to do so, and thereby allow that president to do so.

On Our National Holiday, America’s Everlasting War“:

Lyndon Johnson, of all people, called the last bluff. In March of 1965, he appeared before Congress to urge the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and he delivered the greatest speech an American president has delivered in my lifetime. He was an operator, far more than half-corrupt, and a Texan besides, but the one thing he wasn’t was mystified. He knew power and he knew that power had no inherent mystery to it. It was raw. It was elemental. And it was power in this country that was changing. He looked the angry South and the comfortable North right in the eye and said it plain:

But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For, with a country as with a person, “what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.

And then:

But even if we pass this bill the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

Tom Levenson says “Amen” and quotes more from Johnson’s astonishing, world-changing speech — a speech that, again, Johnson was only able to give because he’d been compelled to do so.

This is from a few years ago, but it’s still timely — Kai Wright: “Dr. King, Forgotten Radical

We’ve all got reason to avoid the uncomfortable truths King shoved in the nation’s face. It’s a lot easier for African Americans to pine for his leadership than it is to accept our own responsibility for creating the radicalized community he urged upon us. And it’s more comfortable for white America to reduce King’s goals to an idyllic meeting of little black boys and little white girls than it is to consider his analysis of how white supremacy keeps that from becoming reality.

Take, for instance, his point that segregation’s purpose wasn’t just to keep blacks out in the streets but to keep poor whites from taking to them and demanding economic justice. … “The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” King lectured from the Alabama Capitol steps, following the 1965 march on Selma. “And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than a black man.”

… Black America first anointed King its savior after he stormed onto the national scene in Montgomery, holding together the prolonged 1954 bus boycott with nightly speeches in which he exhorted everyone to stay the course. Jet magazine called him “Alabama’s Modern Moses.” We’ve been waiting for another prophet since he was gunned down on April 4, 1968. I just wish our last one would come back and remind us that our power lies not in leadership but in a collective refusal to be oppressed.

And more:

  • Anonymous

    Brilliant goddamn post.

  • Lori

     

     “Should MLK’s ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’ Be Added to the New Testament?”  
     

    Oh Lord, no. It’s already more than nauseating enough watching Conservatives lying in an attempt to co-opt MLK every January. No need to add to that by making him part of the Bible they think they own. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    Didn’t Glenn Beck once compare himself to MLK?

  • Lori

    Yes, he did. 

    Some might suggest that the fact that he was not instantly struck by lightening is proof that there is no God. 

  • Anonymous

    And once again we are back to Stanley Levison saying right after the assassination that whites were mourning “their plaster saint who was going to protect them from angry Negroes.”
    Every King Day I pull that one out and grind my teeth at how right he called that one. Hearing the National Review say that MLK would oppose Obama was this year’s atrocity. It’s probably true that Dr. King would have sharp things to say about the president, but they wouldn’t be anything like what the National Review was implying.

  • Anonymous

    The Real King was a tremendously complex political figure despised by many, who fought for racial justice, and against Vietnam… the man was, both by the standards of his day and of the present day, a leftist.

    That may be, but that’s not why his birthday is a national holiday.

  • Kish

    Do I want to know how you imagine you can divide what Dr. King did from his politics?

    No. No, I’m sure I don’t.

  • Lori

     
    That may be, but that’s not why his birthday is a national holiday. 

    This is true in the sense that as hard as the Right fought against MLK Day they would have fought 10 times as hard if people had talked too much about the real Martin Luther King Jr and the holiday would never have happened. 

    At the same time, his leftist views are a big part of the underlying reason we have MLK Day. His politics informed and drove his actions as surely as his religious beliefs. Had his politics been other than what they were, his accomplishments would have been less and he would not have left a legacy worth honoring with a holiday. 

  • Anonymous

    Far be it for me to separate Dr. King from his political views.  I merely note that he is regarded as an American hero because of his leadership in the civil rights movement — not for his views on every political issue of the day.

    Presidents Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln are also celebrated as great leaders for specific reasons — not because of every action that they took or every political position that they held.

    Dr. King supported Israel’s right to exist and defend its citizens from attacks.*  But I would never dare to suggest that the purpose of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is to commemorate his support for Zionism.

    * Rep. John Lewis reported that Dr. King voiced support for Israeli security as late as March, 1968 – just days before his death.

  • Lori

     
    Far be it for me to separate Dr. King from his political views.  I merely note that he is regarded as an American hero because of his leadership in the civil rights movement — not for his views on every political issue of the day.  

     

    This is a perfect example of what I was talking about. For MLK being against things like the Vietnam War and economic injustice were part of his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. You can’t separate them and plenty of people think of him as a hero for the totality of his views, not merely for the Disneyfied slice that Conservatives agreed to allow to be celebrated (while they continue to undermine what he worked for). 

    In short, you’re showing your ass in yet another political thread. 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    My impression is that in particular the American South makes rather a joke out of MLK Day. Not sure if this is a shop or real, but I saw a picture of a KFC sign saying MLK Day 50% off.

    Problematic much? (>_>)

  • P J Evans

    In the deep South, they’ll celebrate Robert E Lee’s birthday instead of President’s Day (because that includes Lincoln in particular) or MLK Day. Because it’s so much better (in their minds) to honor someone who fought to preserve an unjust system, than those who fought against it. I’ll grant that some of them are doing it from habit formed in childhood – but every one of them over the age of about 50 knows exactly what’s going on.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    Lee Circle aside*, I can assure you I did not grow up amid even a hint of “celebrating Robert E. Lee’s birthday,” and that MLK day was indeed observed. Then again, many would argue that the greater New Orleans area doesn’t count as deep US South but rather as a piece of Europe that went exploring and got lost in the swamp.

    *It’s only about a mile away from Jackson Square, after all.

  • http://leftcheek.blogspot.com Jas-nDye

    I think you may be missing the point, anunursa. He is celebrated by the mainstream America for different reasons than why he’s celebrated by more progressive folks. He was widely derided for moving beyond civil rights/”race” issues and into poverty and war issues.

    Not that he was really accepted even by most blacks in his time for his race activism…

  • Anonymous

    I kind of agree with Aunursa.  MLK is certainly celebrated more for his contribution to civil rights, and you don’t have to agree with everything he believed to respect that.  It is, however, totally dishonest for people to pretend (as some Conservative politicians/pundits have to done) that he would agree with their believes when this is obviously untrue.

    My impression is that in particular the American South makes rather a joke out of MLK Day. Not sure if this is a shop or real, but I saw a picture of a KFC sign saying MLK Day 50% off.

    Impressively tacky.  I’ve basically never heard of MLK day being commercialized… so yeah, I’d say either *shop or racist.  Or someone’s idea of joke. 

    In the deep South, they’ll celebrate Robert E Lee’s birthday instead of President’s Day (because that includes Lincoln in particular) or MLK Day. Because it’s so much better (in their minds) to honor someone who fought to preserve an unjust system, than those who fought against it. I’ll grant that some of them are doing it from habit formed in childhood – but every one of them over the age of about 50 knows exactly what’s going on.

    I remember Lee-Jackson day.  My Scoutmaster (the second, crazier one…) exhibited some pretty severe insistent terminology on that one.  I never put much stock in it… if it hadn’t been on Martin Luther King day, the most ridiculously obviously racist thing ever, I would… kind of understand, even if I don’t entirely like the logic.  Irwin Rommel was also an exemplary general, and he was even killed for resisting the Nazis (unlike Lee, who basically did nothing the Confederacy didn’t like)… but we don’t have a holiday with his name. 

  • Wes

    Here comes the obligatory “please don’t paint the entire South with one brush” post.  I assume that I am the only one here, based on the posts so far, who actually grew up in the South (not too far from the jail cell where the afore-mentioned letter was penned) and I don’t know a single person in any generation who celebrates Robert E. Lee’s birthday. I’m not for one second denying there is racism in the South, but please refrain from inflating it to demonize an entire people. 

  • cyllan

    I was born in the Deep South. I know people who fought hard against the recognition of MLK’s holiday.  The state of Arkansas celebrated (and may still celebrate) Confederate’s Memorial Day on MLK day as a protest against the holiday.  Georgia just managed to get the Confederate Flag off of its state flag within the past few elections; a governor lost his seat over the issue, and the only reason we STILL don’t have it is because of some of the slickest politicking I’ve seen in quite some time.  (It turns out that when you ask Georgians to pick between “Ugly and Racist” and “Boring”, they will actually go with the boring option.)  South Carolina has been the subject of multiple boycotts in an attempt to get them to get rid of their Confederate Flag.  When I was growing up, the Prestigious Town Club had no black members, and no white servers, busboys or coat-checkers.  There’s a whole lot of institutional racism still lingering in the South, and while I don’t want to encourage people to demonize all Southerners, I do think it’s fair to say “The South has institutional racism that needs to be addressed.”

    (The rest of the country may have similiar problems, but I can’t speak for them except to say that in Minnesota where I lived for 4 years, it was almost impossible to know if there was racism or not because it was so overwhelmingly white.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Cule/100001621659800 Michael Cule

    “He was a leftist.”

    Why do you say that like it was a bad thing?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Cule/100001621659800 Michael Cule

    And after reading all the way through it, I’ve got to say it’s a great speech and I wonder who wrote it for him. (Not to denigrate his courage in speaking it but I wonder who came up with the words.)

    And one passage struck me particularly that should be quoted (with anger and shame) whenever the talk of ‘electoral fraud’ is brought up:

    “Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists, and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application.” 

  • Lori

     And after reading all the way through it, I’ve got to say it’s a great speech and I wonder who wrote it for him. (Not to denigrate his courage in speaking it but I wonder who came up with the words.)  

     

    It was probably Richard Goodwin or Harry McPherson. 

  • hapax

    In the deep South, they’ll celebrate Robert E Lee’s birthday instead of
    President’s Day (because that includes Lincoln in particular) or MLK
    Day. Because it’s so much better (in their minds) to honor someone who
    fought to preserve an unjust system, than those who fought against it.

    Oh, it’s worse than that.  It couldn’t have been more than five years ago that I read the editorial in the local fishwrap explaining that we should celebrate Lee’s birthday because he was a “gentleman” and “devoted to his family” and always courteous and soft-spoken and honorable.  (The “as opposed to you know who” wasn’t stated but easy to read between the lines.)

    That all of those virtues were exercised in defense of treason was regrettable, of course, but still the man was One Of Us.

  • FangsFirst

    Ah, I remember the guy my SGF used to work with who explained how MLK Day was a racist holiday to her…
    Avowed Southern Baptist. Southeastern native! With a confederate flag on his truck, of course.

    It’s not an entire people, no. Not at all, even. But there’s still plenty of it, with a disturbingly high prevalence. I stopped paying attention to the volume of confederate flags years ago.

  • Kit

    I’d like to see Bayard Rustin get brought up more in articles about MLK Jr. and LGBTQI rights.

    I’ve seen anti-MLK Day crap in Nebraska and northern Minnesota, so it’s not confined to the South, or based in anything sane. Hell, my boss, at our well-integrated-for-MN-population-averages store bitched and moaned about MLK Day again this year, and doesn’t pay holiday pay for it. My roommate from South Carolina claims you don’t even want to bring it up in the small towns he grew up in, but when he moved to Charlotte, NC, he noticed everyone celebrating it pretty enthusiastically (sales and whatnot) ’cause his area at least was very diverse.