Monday, January 28, 2008

Belated Thoughts on MLK Day

I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a little while, for fear of being politically incorrect. Over the King holiday weekend I found myself being very uncomfortable with a lot of the rhetoric that was intended to honor him. For all of the sincerity in the praise that pundits, athletes, politicians, and preachers lavished on Martin Luther King, Jr., it seemed that something was missing. It seemed like we weren’t really talking about the real King.

I feel weird saying that, because how can an upper middle class white guy who was born more than a decade after King was killed claim to know “the real Martin Luther King”? I don’t mean to imply that I fully understand who he really was. I’m not even sure who I really am half the time. What I am saying is that if we take a closer look at his public ministry we might get a different picture than the relatively safe figure who occupies an elevated seat in the narrative of the American Civil Religion.

Chris Rock has a bit that he does about taking a class in black history, which he thought he could ace without studying because he was black. To his surprise, the answer to every question was not “Martin Luther King”. I’m pretty sure that my knowledge of black history was about as deep as Chris Rock’s until I got to college. They taught me in grade school that Martin Luther King was a great man who said that everyone should be equal, and they would show us a clip from “I Have a Dream”. It turns out they only told us the safe part of the story.

It wasn’t until a number of years later that I found out that King was concerned with a lot more than ending segregation. In his last few years he began to speak out against the Vietnam War, against the advice of many of his friends because they thought it would undermine their continuing work on civil rights. King said that he couldn’t not speak out because Vietnam represented the same injustice and oppression they were fighting against in the US.

As I began to learn more, I also discovered that King was concerned about poverty issues for the same reasons he spoke out on segregation and Vietnam. I had always known that he was killed in Memphis, but nobody taught me that he was there to lend support to a sanitation worker’s strike. As I learned more about who Martin Luther King was and what he stood for I began to have a hard time understanding why he’s quoted so much by people who are pro-war, anti-union, and couldn’t care less about poverty.

What I’ve come to realize is that we’ve done the same thing to Martin Luther King, Jr. that we’ve done to Jesus and countless other prophets, radicals, and charismatic leaders who were a thorn in the side of the established powers of their day. We’ve selectively edited our collective memories of who they were and what they did to make them safe, and then we hold them up as role models who seem to support the status quo, even though they were driven by a passion to see fundamental change in the way we live together as a human community. By pretending to honor them we disgrace their memories by ignoring what they stood for.

I’m glad we have a national holiday to remember Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s important for us to remember not only him as an individual, but the things that he stood for. So let’s not be afraid to say what it was he really stood for, and how his message impacts us today. Were King alive today he would have some very strong opinions about the war in Iraq, about the fight over immigration, and about our health care crisis. And they probably wouldn’t be very popular, certainly not befitting such a lauded American hero. Somehow a radical who was uncompromising in his fight for justice has become one of our national saints, so to truly honor his memory we might just have to become radicals for justice ourselves. I’m pretty sure Martin Luther King, Jr. would have wanted it that way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this post Matt. These are the things that I think were what made him such a great man and leader. The fact that when he said he wanted all people to be equal he really meant it.
Maybe it's because I grew up in Michigan close to Detroit, but I grew up knowing these other aspects of him. Or maybe it's because I always seek to learn about people or things I'm interested in (I don't trust history through textbooks) and I read up on him and his actual works. Either way I am glad to see that others are honoring his memory for the whole person.