Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been 82 this month, and his assassination occurred nearly 43 years ago. As we get further and further from that time, memories get fuzzy and a kind of collective amnesia sets in, as Vincent Harding has observed, some of it deliberately promoted amnesia. So, the question is how to remember King clearly and to see that amazing moment in history that he participated in through a sharp and focused lens? Three things come to mind.
First of all, King was a radical. Not the venomous kind that promotes reckless violence against innocent people; quite the opposite. King was a radical in his criticism of the root causes of injustice, and in his brilliantly imaginative vision of a different, more just and humane world. For example, King did not just urge protesters to be non-violent, he urged politicians and governments to be non-violent. In 1968 he took a brave stance against the war in Vietnam, in a speech in New York City’s Riverside Church, that cost him some of his liberal supporters. He criticized the injustices of capitalism: persistent poverty, inadequate aid to workers and the poor, and growing wealth disparity. Let us remember he died demanding not simply integration, but labor rights for striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
Secondly, King was not a king. He was not a superhero who rushed in to singularly rescue black people from the evils of American racism. He acted in concert with others, many others, some of them with longer careers in social justice struggles than himself. There is a famous analogy in King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, one he used many times, in which he compares his work to that of a pilot guiding a plane. The pilot is important, King concedes. However, that safe journey could not be achieved without the sometimes invisible work of a very skilled and committed ground crew. I might chose a slightly different analogy, but the point is an important one. As Ella Baker was fond of saying, “King didn’t make the movement, the movement made King.”
King understood this. We cannot build a movement for social justice by hanging our hopes on a single charismatic leader, no matter how articulate, committed, and brilliant he or she may be (not King and not Obama).
Individuals change their minds, and their loyalties. They get assassinated. Most fundamentally, individuals are only as strong as the collectives and communities that surround them, that keep them safe and honest and grounded and accountable. So, celebrations of King have to go hand in hand with celebrations of the maids and porters students and teachers who struggle tirelessly in what we now term the civil rights movement.
We have to also remember the folks like Ella Baker, who was an activist and strategist for over 50 years in groups fighting racism, poverty, and repression. And Fannie Lou Hamer, who had no formal education and lacked the credentials that King enjoyed, but who was one of the most courageous and revered leaders in the civil rights movement of the South. And, of course, there are white activists like Anne Braden, who dared to stand up for justice and freedom at the risk of being attacked and ostracized in her own southern community.
Finally, part of remembering King’s legacy is remembering the dangers of political repression and vitriolic persecution. Recent events in Tucson come to mind. King lived under a constant fear of assassination because his visibility and outspokenness made him a target. But something else made him a target, too: The way in which his critics vilified him, attributed sinister motives to his actions, called him un-American and a danger to the traditional values of our nation.
Those folks are outliers now, but they were not outliers in King’s time. They were politicians and editors, civic leaders and sheriffs. The violent rampage that left six people dead in Arizona last week and many others injured was carried out by one troubled man. However, he chose a political event and targeted a politician. And he did so in a climate where that same politician had been a literal bulls-eye on political hit list. When violent metaphors are used to “target” opponents we should not be surprised when one disturbed person takes the bait.
But here is a sad and troubling irony: Tea party organizers can bring guns to rallies and put their political rivals under bulls-eyes on websites and have that accepted as legitimate political activity, while non-violent activists who criticize government policy are under attack by the FBI. I refer here to the Supreme Court decision in June against the Humanitarian Law Project, which essentially criminalized their efforts to offer conflict resolution training to people immersed in violent conflicts around the world. This decision made it a crime to provide “material support” to any organization the government designates a terrorist group, but established a ridiculously broad definition of support. The ruling has been the basis of FBI raids on the homes of activists who support Palestinian rights and oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The people the FBI is targeting do not advocate the use of guns or even own them; they advocate peace and justice.
King, too, was a peace activist who supported anti-colonial struggles and was under constant FBI surveillance. His phone was tapped, his mail was opened, he was followed and watched. People he trusted were enlisted to spy on him. Government agents plotted how to undermine his leadership, especially as he moved more toward the left.
So, let’s remember three things this MLK Day: the honorable tradition of progressive democratic radicalism that looks deeply and widely at the causes of injustice and tries to root them out; the danger of investing all our hopes and dreams in a savior-type leader; and the persistent danger of witch hunts that seek to silence and intimidate dissidents and make everyone else afraid to come to their aid.
In King’s words, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” Instead of praising King for battles already fought, let’s look around at the pervasive injustices that still exist, from the obscene disparity in wealth to the abandonment of our educational institutions. From the unchecked growth of prisons for the poor to the escalating oppression of the Palestinian people in Israel and Palestine. Let’s pay tribute to King, and Baker and Hamer and all the others who fought the good fight by building a sustainable movement for a more just and humane world.