Thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day evokes in me an unexpected kinship with others who view “their” holidays as coopted. I come to empathize with those devout Christians who lament the commercialization of the latter fourth of the calendar year and urge us to put the Christ back in Christmas. I understand better the frustration of military veterans who would like the American public to treat Memorial Day more as a commemoration of fallen soldiers than a celebration featuring beaches, BBQ and baseball. With regard to the King holiday, the danger is that the canonized version of King will dominate public remembrances and will cause us to lose sight of just how radical true belief in America’s promise could be.
It is hard to envision J. Edgar Hoover doing battle with the canonized version of King for reasons other than bigotry-fueled bullying. Remembering the more radical version–the one who took bricks in Chicago and put to bed any notion that segregation was purely a Southern phenomenon; the one who jeopardized allegiances with powerful Democrats, including Lyndon Johnson, by steadfastly opposing the Vietnam War; the one who launched the Poor People’s Campaign and noted that seats at lunch counters had limited value if you couldn’t afford to buy a burger; the one who died while organizing sanitation workers in Memphis–helps us remember how King gave Hoover something real to fear. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 deserve to be labeled the most consequential civil rights legislation in American history, but what King promoted after 1965 threatened a farther-reaching redistribution of economic and attendant political power.
Remembering what King considered necessary to make the American Dream more than a cruel joke for millions of African-Americans also compels a rejection of the revisionist view that were he around today, he would favor the conservative reading of equal protection as requiring color-blind public policy. (Here are one hijacker’s recent colorful remarks on the subject.) Consider, to start, the numerous statements King made directly calling for race-conscious remedies for past discrimination. But even if you could write these statements off as inapplicable to the wide range of programs currently falling under the banner of affirmative action, is it plausible to believe that someone with such a strong sense of the linkages between economic development and political power would posit formal equality, without a sustained effort to reduce centuries of comprehensive substantive inequality, as an end goal? If we believe that adherence to non-violence equals political naivete, then we haven’t learned much from King at all.
Is it possible that King, had he lived to see both the gains and the disappointments of the post-1968 era, would have become more conservative? Would he be lecturing young black men about the need to pull their pants up and speak ever-so-respectfully to law enforcement officials, instead of advocating economic transformations that would provide genuine opportunity for marginalized peoples? There is certainly precedent for this kind of shift. But perhaps King would have become more radical as the limits of formal equality became more evident. I don’t think he would abandoned non-violence, a concept at the core of his political identity, but I could envision his becoming more skeptical about the prospect that economic and social justice could be achieved within existing frameworks.
What is ultimately troubling for me about King Day is that as his era grows more distant, we increasingly view civil rights opponents’ behavior as inexplicable, the product of a more benighted era. When we read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and encounter King’s admonition to white Southern clergy counseling patience, we empathize with King’s frustration over being asked to bear the burden of racism indefinitely while white people of good will gradually come around. But do we consider the possibility that our attitudes and behavior echo those of King’s addressees? Are we counseling patience to people who simply don’t have the luxury of waiting for the larger society to evolve? Reflection is hardly a strong suit of American politics, irrespective of issue. But it’s especially unfortunate to see insufficient reflection about race relations on a day devoted to someone who urged us to engage in such reflection.