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.