January 19, 2009

MLK Day reprint: The warm, fuzzy, unthreatening sort of radical

Today is Martin Luther King Day, 2009. For extra historical significance, it's also the day before the inauguration of our first African-American president. So, naturally, not only do I not have the day off, I have two hours of practice before my oral exam on Wednesday, and I get to spend the rest of the day trying to get groceries.

In short: no time for a full post, as much as a full post is due. So here's a reprint of something I wrote about MLK last April:
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I love Martin Luther King. First, he is without a doubt in my mind the most brilliant American orator of the twentieth century, and quite possibly the greatest since Abraham Lincoln. Second, he words are not just moving; they are deep and insightful. `Letter from Birmingham city jail' is one of the great philosophical treatises on civil disobedience.

And third, King was truly radical in his opposition to racism, poverty, and war.

That last sentence might be kind of surprising. In the narrative I got in high school American history, King was the moderate, keeping the civil rights movement from spiraling off into the violence and destruction of Malcolm X and, later, The Black Panthers. King was the safe alternative, who wanted us all to get along. He wasn't going to shoot at you, or burn your house down, or make a pass at your wife. He was the Nice Black Man who, after centuries of being stomped on, was politely asking for those evil racists to please take their boot off his face.

This narrative is almost 100% bullshit. It's true that King and X disagreed deeply over the use of violence. But King didn't speak with a voice of submissive pleading. He didn't ask for improvement. He demanded justice, at whatever costs necessary. Jim Crow was his most famous enemy, but it was far from the only one. King fought the de facto apartheid of the Northern cities, the invasion of Viet Nam, and the way capitalism ground down communities into a fine, atomic powder of poverty. (Obviously, I'm not as good with the metaphors as he was.) King was systematically and radically opposed to virtually every aspect of the American and international power structure. And on the fortieth anniversary of his death (which was yesterday, but I was busy and the past two weeks have been exhausting -- sorry Dr. King) it's vital that we respect the radicality of his vision.

Some links:
  1. Kai Wright with more on this theme:


  2. His 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail' is in fact a blunt rejection of letting the establishment set the terms of social change. 'The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation,' he wrote, later adding, 'We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.'


  3. The NewsHour segment from last night, with three academics who work on race issues and Cory Booker, the progressive mayor of Newark, NJ. (Booker is undoubtedly someone to keep an eye on. I predict that this man is going to be one of the great activists of the 21st century.)

4 comments:

Drew said...

Good call on Booker. I've been keeping my eye on him for a while, and he never fails to impress.

Jason said...

Booker kind of creeped me out with the whole celebrating the "deliciousness" of America.

MosBen said...

Booker for first Zombie President?

Noumena said...

Well, Cannibal President, maybe. Except that everyone knows Grover Cleveland was our first Cannibal President.