The birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1986. Its celebration was resisted by many states, for reasons too obvious to delineate here. By the year 2000, all states of the Union officially celebrated Dr. King’s birthday.
The fact that it took 14 years for a handful of recalcitrant states to celebrate the holiday is very telling. Dr. King, like Nelson Mandela, has had myth and legend encased on his memory, both in his life and after his death. And these myths tend to obscure the real man, the man of flesh and bone, the man with passion and thought.
We all remember and revere his stance for peace. But we cannot forget that he wielded peace like a weapon. His peace wasn’t a comfortable peace. To quote from another time, he wasn’t asking “Can’t we all just get along”.
He stood against a racial apartheid as pernicious as that which exiled South Africa from the community of nations. He stood against establishment assumptions of American empire and American militarism. He stood against the received wisdom of American capitalism.
He is too often seen now as an anodyne figure, someone who spoke to the better angels of our nature, someone who can be embraced by both left and right. (Well, some of the right. Some of them are beyond redemption.)
Peace was his tactic, and his belief. But it served something which was radical. Although he and Malcolm X spoke in different metaphors, they had much of the same view of the corrupted American experiment. It was an experiment which, at its inception, relegated slaves and the freed children of slaves to oppression and denigration. It was an experiment which depended upon keeping down the working class. It was an experiment which thrived by pitting natural allies against each other, based on culture, religion, race. It was an experiment which arrogated to itself the rights of empire as natural, exporting its system as a panacea for what ailed the world, blind to its own glaring failings.
When Dr. King spoke out against the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson was infuriated. Here he had handed the South to the Republican Party in his effort to get civil rights legislation passed, and Dr. King spoke out against the war which was wrapped around the president’s neck.
And that act shows why we misread Dr. King as merely an apostle of peace. He was that; but it was peace serving a larger purpose. It was peace as a way of exposing the inherent contradictions of the American myth. A republic of freedom founded on slavery. An empire of liberty which slaughtered the native inhabitants. A nation of immigrants which then turned against new waves of immigrants.
He began as a civil rights activist. He trained as a preacher. But on that April night in Memphis, he emerged as a prophet. In his last years he spoke the truths which the country needed to hear. The nation needed to hear these truths if it were ever to live up to its founding mythologies.
A house cannot stand divided. What was true in the fissures between north and south, is equally true in a political climate where enmity and hatred are stoked by actors seeking after their own wealth and power, uncaring of the effect it has on their fellow countrymen.
A nation cannot endure half slave, half free. It was true in the times of chattel slavery. It is equally true in a time of increasing income inequality, where the dreams of a secure life slip away from greater numbers of people.
What we cannot forget about Dr. King is that he spoke to these issues. He wielded peace like a sword, cutting away at the comfortable lies we all told ourselves, blind to the contradictions which informed the country’s politics, economics, and culture.
I was born a year after Dr. King’s assassination. And I grew up with the comforting image of the peaceful man. He was a peaceful man. But he was a man of iron, with a strong will, diagnosing the diseases which wracked a country which, when he was born, didn’t consider him an equal citizen. The way of peace is the hardest path, and that was the path which Dr. King chose to change his country.
As we remember his life today, let’s remember it clearly. In that way we can continue to carry out his work.