In eulogizing Franklin Roosevelt, Adolph Berle once remarked that “Great men have two lives, one which occurs while they work on earth, (and) a second which begins at their death and continues as long as their lives and conceptions remain powerful.” While there are a number of reasons for which we should all be grateful for the federal holiday honoring the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., there’s little doubt that this also has helped to feed a collective understanding of King that is largely disconnected from his true intellectual legacy.
Presidents and politicians who talk about the pressing need to fulfill King’s “dream,” for example, are generally speaking of an innocuous, sanitized and static portrait of King that never really existed. Media characterizations tend to be equally shallow. Each year at this time, we are invariably bombarded with images of King speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, while scores of articles will characterize King as a charismatic figure who helped win key victories in the realm of civil rights. Rarely is there any discussion however, of King’s call for “a fundamental transformation of the values, the institutions, the life and the direction of society.” As one historian has remarked, “It appears as if the price for the first national holiday honoring a black man is the development of a massive case of national amnesia.”
Though it would be easy to simply blame public officials and journalists for their inability or unwillingness to ever arrive at a significant understanding of King, the general public shares some responsibility as well. Over the past decade or so, a veritable avalanche of scholarship from a wide range of disciplines has aimed at demythologizing King in one fashion or another.
One example of this has been a recent tendency, among historians and biographers alike, to focus upon the last three years of King’s life. While King never once muted his calls for brotherhood, harmony and nonviolence, his critique of American society increasingly demanded a radical restructuring of our foreign and economic policies. Putting at risk a great deal of his civil rights agenda, King began speaking out against U.S. militarism as early as 1965. Most symptomatic of this, of course, was the “nightmarish conflict” in Vietnam, which he held was “one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world.”
During roughly this same period, King also began to lobby less on behalf of civil rights for African Americans, so that he might focus greater attention on entrenched patterns of economic exploitation. In these terms, integration did not simply mean mixed neighborhoods, but rather a meaningful sharing of power and responsibility in corporate, political and social arenas. While King did indeed pine for a nation where people would be judged not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” nothing could be more insidious than the commonly heard conjecture that he therefore would have opposed present-day affirmative action programs. In addition to wholehearted support for such policies, he also demanded a good deal more.
Though only occasionally acknowledging that “maybe America must move toward democratic socialism,” much of what he stood for involved a fundamental redistribution of wealth, and therefore remains outside of mainstream political discourse. In the years preceding his death, he railed against “systemic rather than superficial flaws” in our economic system, asking for full employment, national health care, a guaranteed annual wage and a sweeping, domestic “Marshall Plan” of federal assistance to the urban poor.
As a means to these ends, King envisioned a massive escalation of nonviolent civil disobedience. Whereas much of his work in the South simply sought a recognition of general principles mirrored in the Constitution, he had planned for subsequent campaigns to be waged in confrontation with the federal government. Nonviolence, he argued, “must be adapted to urban conditions and urban moods. There must be more than a statement to the larger society, a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point.”
These are certainly not the cultural values that President Reagan meant to reinforce when in 1983 he signed legislation offering King official sanction as an American hero. Nevertheless, as we honor King’s greatness on the third Monday of each January, we should resist the simplistic and hallowed image of King that we are steadily confronted with. While it may be a terrific day to skip class and go to a celebration, I might suggest that many of us could profit from reading a serious book about King as well.
As Stanford historian Clayborne Carson has pointed out: “The historical King was far too interesting to be encased in simple, didactic legends designed to offend no one.”
McMillian’s column was originally published Monday in The State News at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich.