Discard the Fiction in the Coffin, Find the Real MLK
The Martin Luther King holiday was signed into law in 1983. Since then, every year on this holiday, King is universally praised as a goodhearted, pro-integration leader whose career was driven by the hope of racial equality and eventual calming of racial tensions. As proof, speakers at the holiday's events often quote one of the most famous lines from his 1963 I Have A Dream speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
This is the official, "canonized" King. His coffin is filled not only with his remains but with certificates acknowledging his quasi-sainthood. In this way, King is presented as worthy of our adoration because of his utopian qualities, not because of his militance or daring or capacity to evaluate his miscalculations and move forward despite death threats and endless harassment.
This version of King's life, orchestrated by the institutions of mass culture, is a sanitized easy-to-digest commodity, an addictive junkfood to be stacked alongside the Doritos at Shop ‘N’ Save. Odds are the capitalist logic that led to this cooptation and de-radicalization of the King legacy will one day lead to the ultimate in our consumer culture's hero sanctification: King’s face will appear on Wheaties boxes. “Eat Wheaties and become an outstanding political dreamer,” the box’s wording will say.
But King wasn’t killed for being a dreamer. He was killed for being an uppity mass movement leader dedicated to transforming society by confronting white supremacy. King's activism was certainly driven by a dream of democracy and racial equity, but there was nothing misty-eyed or otherworldly about his dream. Whatever his shortcomings (for instance, in comparison with Malcolm X) in connecting with urban blacks, particularly in the north, King was a fearless organizer who incessantly challenged the authorities, consequently enduring retaliations that included jailtime, cross burnings and beatings.
Through all this, he didn't soften his demands nor diminish the intensity of his commitment to the principle of independent struggle. Even the buildup to his “I have a dream” speech was a sign of this resolve. As the day for the march at which he was to give the speech approached, the Kennedy brothers (President John and Attorney General Robert) pressured him to cancel the event. But instead of backtracking out of fear of Washington's political elites, King wouldn't budge. We all know what happened next. He blew away the nation with his speech, saying to the government about that day's protest:
Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
This quote, lacking the feel-good tone of the quote in the first paragraph, isn't mentioned as often when public officials talk about King because it draws the listener closer to the anti-mainstream, refusing-to-surrender anger at the core of King's activism. He was essentially saying to government something that most officials today don't want us to emulate: You aren't the nation's highest power! We in the streets demanding an end to racism are the highest power! Listen to us or pay the price of further disruption!
King won the Nobel Peace Prize a year later. Theoretically, the prize signaled to the world that King’s position as the U.S.'s moral leader was beyond doubt. But as it turned out, this wasn't true. In fact, the pedestal upon which King stood started crumbling beneath him the moment he mounted it. Instead of becoming more effective as an agitator for change after receiving the peace prize, his career slid into crisis.
Nothing better exemplified this than what happened when he took his anti-racist crusade out of the south and into the north. Suddenly, many northern whites who had supported him during the struggle against Jim Crow in the south abandoned him. Also, younger blacks in the north criticized what they considered to be his naive belief that nonviolence was a sensible tactic for resisting police violence in northern ghettos or for dealing with the black underclass's economic problems in the north’s industrialized urban centers. In addition to King’s difficulties on these fronts, his relationship to the Democratic Party (DP) also grew more tense as he questioned the depth of the party’s commitment to dealing racism a deathblow. These conflicts combined to destabilize the civil rights movement's trajectory. This turned King in his last years into a troubled man struggling to fine-tune his understanding of the complexities of U.S. life, not only for blacks, but for all the nation’s inhabitants.
This difficult period for King began in January 1966 when he brought the civil rights movement to Chicago (see Jonathan Kaufman's Broken Alliance, one of the books with good information on King in Chicago) in order to challenge its notorious segregated housing policies. Upon arrival, he rented a ghetto apartment to illustrate his solidarity with the poor. But as the months passed, the campaign fared badly. Mayor Daley and the city’s DP machine methodically sidestepped, stalled and outright blocked the campaign's efforts to make headway. This resistance to the desegregation effort was related to a problem mentioned above: King’s abandonment by large contingents of northern white liberals who had supported his southern work but were unenthusiastic and/or insulted by his invasion of the north. To make matters worse, late that spring King’s ineffectiveness in Chicago was amplified by doubts about his leadership in the south.
When civil rights activist James Meredith was shot in Mississippi, King left Chicago and traveled there to participate in a protest march led by Stokely Carmichael. It was at that march that Carmichael, rejecting what he believed to be the passivity intrinsic to King's nonviolence tactics, punched his fist into the air and bellowed “Black Power!” to a crowd in a park in the city of Greenwood in the Mississippi Delta area. Considering the phrase unsuitable as a civil rights phrase, King asked Carmichael to desist from using it in his speeches. But Carmichael refused. Unfortunately for King, when news spread of his clash with Carmichael over the "Black Power" slogan, many African-Americans, particularly the young, adopted it, considering it edgier and more to the point of their struggles.
When King returned to Chicago again, his bad year continued. On a blistering summer day when the temperature soared above 100 degrees, a black rebellion erupted when police turned off West Side fire hydrants at which kids were cooling themselves. A panicked King attempted to calm the uprising but couldn’t. Within forty-eight hours at least two people had been killed, over fifty injured and close to three hundred arrested.
A few weeks later, when King attempted to refocus people on Chicago’s segregated housing crisis, his efforts backfired. As he led a crowd of approximately 600 protestors through Chicago’s Marquette Park in an all-white neighborhood in the city’s southwest section, a crowd of 1,000 frenzied white counter-protestors waved confederate flags and Nazi banners at the marchers while also hurling bricks, bottles and rocks at them. One brick hit King in the head and he fell to the ground. There was something pathetic about King’s helplessness that day. A southern organizer in a northern city, he seemed out of place. Many people wrote him off as a has-been.
Although King had come upon hard times, he didn't abandon his quest for a transformed America. As a person comfortable with self-interrogation, he had always analyzed his experiences and sought within them for factors that might shed light on how to solve his inconsistencies and failures. Realizing that northern racism was deeper and more widely spread than he'd anticipated, and also recognizing that many lower-middle class, and working class whites experienced economic anxieties similar to those of many blacks, he meditated on capitalism's structure more than ever before, concluding that it was rooted in every aspect of U.S. society and therefore was a crucial part of every problem, including racism and the building war in Vietnam. Consequently, he became convinced that a “magnificent ferment” or revolution was necessary in order to demolish racism while simultaneously restructuring the nation economically so working people, the underclass and the unorganized, regardless of color, won more power to control their destinies.
This evolution in King's thinking was reflected in a series of speeches he gave in 1967-68, the last two years of his life. When read together, these speeches reveal a mind which, although still rooted in its rejection of white supremacist thought and policies, insinuates the need for a mass movement built on an understanding of the links between poverty, racism and the threat of economic insecurity for members of the lower classes. Enlivened by this vision, he expressed disappointment with leaders — politicians, union officials, civic association heads, other civil rights activists, et. al. — whose white supremacy and/or smugness prevented them from deepening their vision and more firmly challenging the status quo.
In a sermon at the Episcopalian National Cathedral in Washington D.C. a month before his death, King spoke about how those characterized by such attitudes seemed more asleep than alive, more brain-damaged than aware — “One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses — that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”
Believing the U.S. economy was headed in the wrong direction and the average person was bound to suffer as a result, King stressed to a Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting in 1967 that individuals who supported racial and economic democracy had to address “the question of restructuring the whole of American society.” He continued by saying about the nation:
There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalist economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole of society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?"
Clearly King believed the battle for equality and democracy required direct action on the part of the those who are oppressed, not the creation of stodgy commissions to study social-economic problems. As King told AFL-CIO leaders in a 1961 speech, he admired how the masses of workers in the 1930s and 1940s rejected the advice of labor’s critics “to go slow, to be moderate, not to stir up strife” and instead took their destiny into their own hands. They staged illegal sit-ins and protests, brought whole industries to a halt, then did what had never been done before: they created industrial unions. King further suggested to his audience that it made no sense for the economically or racially oppressed to reject self-organization and to rely instead “on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us.” For King, the way for people to protect their rights was through group action, not by depending on the powerful’s charity. King’s message was that the racially excluded and all those marginalized by the economy must create racial equality and social-economic justice on their own because it will never be given to them without struggle.
In a time similar to our own, when political efforts are constricted more than we've deluded ourselves into believing, a quick look at King's actions as a freedom fighter and agitator can be illuminating.
- He rejected the proposition that government, whether at the federal or local level, possessed the right to tell him when or where to hold demonstrations and other forms of protest.
- He rejected the belief that the authorities possessed the right to decide how many people were allowed to participate in picket lines.
- He rejected the idea that the right way to strive for black equality was to lobby congress. Instead, he asserted that the most effective method for forcing congress to move positively on equality was to take to the streets in repeated challenges to white supremacy. He believed that only through such confrontations with those who resisted racial equity could a national dialogue of such proportions be created that eventually congress would be intimidated into passing new antiracist laws.
These principles, which were central to King's career, shed a disturbing light on the submissivity of today's so-called left. The modern left routinely relies on government permission to protest government policies and abides by government decisions about march routes, civil disobedience protocols and so on. Additionally, left formations consistently acquiesce to court-ordered restrictions on the number of picketers allowed outside a strike site, corporate headquarters, or any location that has sparked the ire of conscience-driven citizens. Whereas King refused to allow the black freedom struggle to be mired in traditional politics (e.g., lobbying congress, etc.), choosing instead to pressure congress from the streets and only secondly by talking with politicians, today's left follows an opposite course. Immersed in traditional politics, it only deviates from this practice to the extent that mass agitations are sometimes used as conduits to funnel new recruits into the Democratic Party's so-called liberal wing.
One of the more dramatic examples of this was the anti-Iraq-war movement’s bizarre self-dismantlement.
In 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq up through 2007, the antiwar movement mobilized millions of people against the invasion and the Bush administration's role in rationalizing it. During this period, on average nine major antiwar demonstrations occurred per year. Beginning in 2008 when Obama took office, antiwar activity came to a virtual standstill. One protest in 2008, two in 2009, one in 2010, one in 2012.
Crucial to this radical drop in antiwar activity was the Democratic Party. After its strong showing in the 2006 midterm elections, party activists, feeling upbeat about the DP's chances in the 2008 presidential election, pulled back from involvement in the antiwar movement. This was a serious problem for the movement because of the crucial role DP activists played in its leadership councils as well as — and maybe most importantly — in its fundraising activities. Although the antiwar movement wasn’t merely a DP front organization, the party's gradual withdrawal from it, except to use it as a recruiting space for finding volunteers to work for the DP presidential candidate in the 2008 elections, was a blow from which antiwar forces never recovered. As funds dried up and the minimal number of people required to sustain a large movement evaporated, the movement's activities shrunk in size and frequency. By the beginning of the Obama years, the movement was dead. The details of how this happened are discussed at length in Michael T. Heaney’s and Fabio Rojas’ book Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11. One of their conclusions was, “When Democrats stopped turning out, the movement could no longer achieve critical mass.”
The anti-Iraq war movement's demise was instructive. It evaporated because too many of its biggest donors and leaders were DP activists more committed to electing a DP president in 2008 than in ending U.S. imperial ambitions in the middle east and elsewhere. Although it's undoubtedly true that hundreds of thousands of rank and file peace activists during that period wanted the movement to continue beyond 2008, the movement's failure to build an organization free from the undue influence of external forces, in this case the DP, was what signed its death warrant. The result: the DP achieved its partisan aims while committed antiwar activists were left empty-handed. If only independent leftists had remembered King's reminder not to rely “on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us.”
This warning is still yet to be heeded. King's era and the anti-Iraq war movement may be long gone, but just as many forces today aim to undermine our movements for political change by siphoning off their energy and redirecting it toward other ends.
As Mother Jones reported in a Feb. 13, 2017 article by Tim Murphy, DP organizers have already "used Trump protests to recruit members for new groups" whose mission is to use the protests as recruitment sites. One such organization is Sister District which combs demonstrations, hunting down people from voting districts in which DP candidates regularly win, then persuading these demonstrators to funnel money and/or their activist energies into supporting DP candidates engaged in uphill battles in pro-Republican districts.
Another organization, ActBlue, a PAC, is a heavyweight in funding DP candidates and causes. As such, it plays an important role in luring activists and demonstrators away from protesting against the political system to working within it. That is, within the DP.
Touting itself as the financial wing of the current Resistance mobilizations against Trump, ActBlue touts itself as pro-immigrant, pro-racial equality, pro-worker, pro-LGBT and so on, but only within the DP framework. There's no doubt the Resistance serves a purpose by highlighting Trump's racism and other fascistic leanings, but as a DP-driven upsurge directed and funded by party activists and sympathizers, none of whom possess an interest in undercutting the DP's status as one of the two political parties who have access to this system's power.
If we don't want the DP and its support organizations like Sister District, ActBlue and others to walk away with our movement, we must organize to keep our formation independent of the DP's or any other outside institution's control. This doesn't mean we can't work with Democrats. Of course we can. It simply means the movement must remain independent of their party. We need a movement that isn't shaped by the DP's, or any other formation's, partisan needs. If a Democrat should win the presidency in 2020, we don't want our movement to disappear like the anti-Iraq-war movement did during Obama's campaign and victory in 2008.
All of which brings us back to Martin Luther King Jr. who reminded us of such challenges in 1967 when he warned us not to rely “on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us.” But who remembers the fullness of the man who spoke those words, the genius of his courage and insight. That King has been replaced by a fictional one. This fictional one is what's been left for us after King's boldest social critiques and actions were interred along with his body. This interment was the first step in transforming the holiday in commemoration of his birthday into a state-sponsored ritual of forgetting, a carnival at which politicians, ministers, school board members and officials from all walks of life bury him under platitudes that turn off the young and wilt older people’s already dim recollections of the world-changing power of group action.
It is in this way that Martin Luther King Jr., the political agitator, was converted into a harmless teddybear. The man who broke the law, enraged bigots, ignored U.S. presidents when it suited him, led masses of people into the streets, helped bring Jim Crow to its knees and declaimed against the Vietnam war and capitalism as a system. This man, in all his tranquility-disturbing fullness, is conveniently forgotten by institutions devoted to reinventing the present and past. Their purpose is to reinforce the idea that a hero like King is important, not because of what his life can tell us about how to confront society’s contradictions now, but so we can thank him for having helped to create a world in which agitators like him are no longer needed.
If we truly want to honor King, we must reject this vision and reclaim him for what he was: the embodiment of the principle that the fight for racial equity and other forms of justice must be controlled by its own ranks. Independence is key. We can work with others, their organizations and parties, but what we can't do is be dependent on them. For a freedom struggle to be successful, it first must be free from the control of outside forces.