Which Dr. King Will We Honor?

[ See a shorter version of this published on Truthout]

Once again, as we observe the life and example of Martin Luther King, Jr., the question arises, “Which Dr. King will we honor?”

Will we yet again observe a polished, scaled down, and non-threatening MLK, Jr.—the mere shadow of the man and his dream? At least we will recognize the leadership of the man who called for racial equality and for us to be of service to our neighbors–as we should.  We will even recognize that “we have come a long way” and “there is still further work to do” — as we should.  The further work do be done is invoked almost as an absolution, affirming our commitment to the dream, but without further specification and without discussing our troubling ongoing racial inequalities in our schools, health-care, jobs, housing, and criminal injustice system.

But gone will be the King who called for an end to militarism and far-flung imperial wars,  who said, “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such” and who called his government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

That our militarism has only grown significantly in the intervening decades, makes it necessary to sweep these parts of King under the national rug.  With Obama mobilizing more soldiers and military contractors in Iraq & Afghanistan than Bush, authorizing more drone attacks that have killed more innocent civilians than Bush, expanding military bases in South America, and requesting and receiving the largest military budget EVER in the history not of just this nation, but any nation in history), we better just close our collective national lips about this King.

Gone also will be his call for radical nonviolent dissent, willing to be jailed or to be beaten when necessary, when it came to challenging racial and economic injustice, but also when it came to challenging the militaristic agenda of our government and the capitalists that profit from it.  Who today is urging Americans to “move beyond the prophesying of a smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent” like King did during the context of the Vietnam War?  Those who do dissent stand closer to King’s legacy than those who purport to be his heirs merely by invoking his name or putting his image in their offices.

Gone also will be the King who criticized the evils of radical capitalism, materialism, and the “glaring contrast of poverty and wealth” in this country–a gap that has only gotten wider, with the wealth disparity greater than any year on record (in 2007 the wealthiest 10 percent control over 70 percent of the nation’s wealth, the top 1% controlled 38%, and the bottom 40% owned less than 1%).  For the moment, we’ll also have to ignore that wages have remained stagnant or declined since 1970 while cost of living has gone up and that hunger and homelessness have increased as well. King dared to say,

“Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong…with capitalism… There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.”

Gone certainly will be the King who supported robust reparations. Remember that national check hundreds of thousands came to cash in Washington that King referred to as coming back ‘insufficient funds’? He said that “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.”

Finally, gone is the King the globalist, who believed that “our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation. This means we must develop a world perspective.”

Whoa! Wait, why are we talking about economics & internationalism, when we’re supposed to be talking about racial harmony in the United States?  Blacks and Whites and Latinos, let’s all get along. We agree, no more segregation or bad names, but certainly don’t suggest we make any fundamental changes to the economic status quo or question our foreign policy.

Talking heads, politicians, and educators will once again invoke King as a stalwart warrior against segregation and for equality and children will learn about his valiant struggle for the civil rights of African-Americans.  His “I Have a Dream” speech will be played, while most of his other speeches will be ignored.  This year will hold special significance because this nation’s first African-American President has just finished his first year.  Many already have tried to make a distorted case that Obama is in some way a fulfillment of King’s Dream, because he achieved something unthinkable 40 years ago and he did it based on the content of his character, not on the basis of his skin color.

While there may be some truth in that–in that it was unthinkable 40 years ago, or even 4 years ago–King would no doubt judge character much more broadly, and would examine the type of values being upheld and policies being pursued.  While it is impossible to know how King would have approached the Obama phenomenon, he would have likely noted that what he achieved was in some measure due to his true allegiances.  In other words, that notwithstanding Obama’s outstanding gifts, he is where he is at in large part because he didn’t pose any threat to the structural status quo that King continually critiqued.  Perhaps King would gaze at fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Obama’s policies and deduce a character that falls far short of his dream

When was the last time we inquired into the full extent of the King’s full Dream?  Most American’s learn of the “I have a Dream Speech” as a child, learn that we should all get along, then promptly forget the context of the speech. How many of us learn that the speech was originally part of the campaign called “March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs,” and that King called the large demonstration “a campaign for jobs and income because we felt that the economic question was the most crucial that black people, and poor people generally, were confronting.”

We don’t get an opportunity to forget King’s deeper Dream, because we are never taught it.  This is not unusual, as most radical democratic dreams and actors are erased from our nation’s official memory.

Like most presidents, including Clinton and Bush, Obama invokes King.   As a case in point, let us examine the White House’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Presidential Proclamation on Friday.  It states:

“Today, let us ask ourselves what Dr. King believed to be life’s most urgent and persistent question: “What are you doing for others?”

The Proclamation then provides a link to service projects across the nation and an appeal that the Haiti crisis reminds us that service to our neighbors doesn’t stop at our borders.  Indeed King did emphasize service as the highest calling.  However, the corollary of King’s call to service involved a “a radical revolution of values” and a “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”  Yet such a formulation would be a slug to the nose of a consumer-oriented, materialistic society. King had concluded, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

One also wonders if our neighbors include those who are victims not just of natural disasters, but of human-wrought military earthquakes, such as those civilians in Iraqi and Afghanistan who have paid the price of “our” national security interests.  King the globalist would have thought so.

The reduction of King’s Dream to volunteerism & fight for civil rights divorced from his deeper dream is a disservice to both him and ourselves.  In fact, King increasingly mentioned the triple evils of “racism, economic exploitation & materialism, and militarism” and added that the three were intricately tied together.  Yet there is little in our national discourse or in our first Black President’s MLK Day Proclamation that addresses these.

Even if a case could be made that our nation’s racist legacy had been checked at the door upon Obama taking the oath of office last year (a silly proposition–see Tim Wise’s  Between Barack and A Hard Place, Racism 2.0), it is abundantly clear by now that the wealthy classes and military interests have been very well served by this first Black President.

In the Proclamation, there is at least a recognition that social injustice and poverty “marrs” our communities. Communities are marred, but there are no culprits.  And certainly there is no hint of  there being entrenched economic, racist, and institutional factors that lead to these blemishes. If there is a culprit to be found, it seems to rest on the lack of a new generation of leaders and underfunded schools. And therein lies the solutions as well:

“Today, we are closer to fulfilling America’s promise of economic and social justice because we stand on the shoulders of giants like Dr. King, yet our future progress will depend on how we prepare our next generation of leaders. We must fortify their ladders of opportunity by correcting social injustice, breaking the cycle of poverty in struggling communities, and reinvesting in our schools. Education can unlock a child’s potential and remains our strongest weapon against injustice and inequality.”

Apart from the fact that the claim  “we are closer to social and economic justice” can–at the very least–be open for discussion, there are other problems with this statement. The solution, from what I can gather, is to develop leaders for a new generation to carry on the spirit of King by investing in education as “the strongest weapon” against inequality and injustice.  Both are worthy goals and certainly consistent with King’s vision.

These read all-too hollow, especially alongside a full reading of King’s intent and side by side with actual policies being advanced. Who was it that said, “If I want to know someone’s priorities, show me their checkbook”? (Just as an example the last year’s federal stimulus money for shovel-ready job creation has gone disproportionately to communities where unemployment is the lowest, aka not Black or Latino communities)

It comes off as vacuous and uncontroversial, not because service, investment in education, and leadership building aren’t vitally important, but because it just misses so much of King’s vision and critique of the root problems.  As a result, it becomes barely a reverie of his Dream.

Perhaps it is a bit unfair to evaluate how King is appropriated by politicians, including Obama.  After all, that is to be expected.  If you can control the narrative, you can control the framework of thinking.  Even the right-wing Heritage Foundation, AIPAC, and Glen Beck find in Dr. King inspiration and a hero for their agendas.  The broader lesson then is for us to learn our own history, to dig deeper into the Dream, to honor the legacy as we understand it, not how those talking heads give it to us, re-packaged as a formulaic and patriotic commodity, safely absorbed and digested by a middle-mind America.   We should not let King become “sanitized or santa-clausified” as Cornel West warns us, or to allow King’s day to become “a yearly ritual to turn a black radical into a red-white-and-blue icon” as Chris Hedges remarked.

My hope is we all will become re-engaged citizen sleuths and historians, digging and listening a little deeper, to “oppose the apathy in our own bosom”; but my fear is that as the decades pass, King’s message will be that much harder to hear and his methods that much harder to adopt.

Perhaps this year as we witness ever more military spending and engagements and the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and even the middle class drops out, we will listen a little more closely to this giant of a man who still has much to teach us: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

I wonder, which Dr. King will we honor and learn from this year?  Will it be the agreeable, safe, King that calls for service and racial equality or will it be the radical, fierce King who calls for questioning the triple evils of capitalism, racism, and militarism?

Or both?

The former King we hold up as our favorite national all-purpose icon who poets, preachers and politicians of all stripes can support from a safe distance; the latter King was shot down on that Memphis balcony.  Could it be that we collectively pull the assassin’s trigger every time we honor the former while ignoring the latter?


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