Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Things That Don't Suck: Martin Luther King, the Extremist

I probably don't need to convince you that Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated 42 years ago this month, was a good person. We take a whole day off in honor of his birthday. We teach our kids about the “I Have a Dream” speech and the march on Washington. There's a street named after him in nearly every major American city. We know that he wanted us to judge people not on the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, and we can all pretty much agree that that was a good thing to say. A poll from last year showed that 86 percent of Americans had a “favorable” opinion of King, a number that seems shocking low—who are the 14 percent of people who don't like MLK?

There's a movement to build a monument to King in Washington DC, which is something that we might have thought to do a while ago—with all the memorials to wars and fallen soldiers and founding fathers who were also slave owners, there isn't a single monument that references segregation. Just as importantly, maybe the monument will encourage people to find out more about the man. We're not in danger of forgetting about MLK, but there has been a sort of smoothing out of his beliefs in the popular imagination. When people think about King, what comes to mind is sort of a warm, soft glow of brotherhood, a suffusion of hopeful idealism. Worse than that, as time goes on, some of us may start thinking about him as someone who opposed segregation in the South, winning that battle but dying in the process.

Liberals who lionize him tend to forget that he was, most importantly, a Christian, and that his Christian beliefs informed his activism; Republicans who praise him (sometimes, one suspects, to prove that they aren't racist) tend to forget that he was decidedly a liberal; and we all tend to forget that while he lived, King was an extremely divisive figure who wasn't as popular as he is now. A lot of us (especially white liberals) imagine that we would be participating in sit-ins and marches, that we would be “freedom riders” and stand up to the racist southern sheriffs and their dogs, but not many people made that difficult choice at the time. King might have been an idealist, he might have believed in nonviolence, but we should remember that he was willing to go to jail for his ideals, he was willing to have dogs sicced on him and rocks thrown at him for his cause, and to follow him and do what he did was a hard road to travel.

We should remember, too, that he was committed to fighting all kinds of injustice, not just segregation in the South. The “I Have a Dream Speech” gets attention every January, but what about the speech where he denounced the Vietnam war and refered to the Vietcong as “brothers?” What about his campaign to fight poverty in Chicago, for which he moved into a tenement slum and where he found some of the most vicious, violent racism he ever encountered? What about the last cause he was involved in, the garbage workers' strike in Memphis? To reduce MLK's life to a campaign against Jim Crow is an unfair reduction and worse than that, it implies that the problems he fought are a thing of the past. What would King say about the recent anti-Mexican anti-immigrant bill in Arizona? What would he say about the exploitation of third-world workers, or the Guantanamo detainees? The planned MLK memorial depicts an unsmiling King gazing off into the distance, and this seems about right.

Teaching kids about King's life and work is important, but let's not stop at “all men are brothers.” Let's use King's life to teach that, among other things:
-Authority figures, even and especially the police, the church, and America itself can be wrong.
-“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”
-Sometimes it's possible to change an unjust status quo, sometimes it isn't, but it's your responsibility to change things.
-"The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be."
-Dreams are good to have, but you don't get things done by dreaming.

(To learn more about the MLK memorial and to donate to it's construction, go here.)


  1. Excellent post, Harry. I read your blog weekly and this one is especially thought provoking and articulate. Thanks, Bill Beery

  2. Think about what the tea partiers would say about King if he were alive today.

    Also, to quote some hazily remembered Rage Against the Machine lyrics "You know they went after King/When he spoke out on Vietnam/He turned the power to the have nots/and then came the shot." At least the terrible music I listened to in 8th grade was informative.