This week we encounter the strange juxtaposition of celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and the inauguration of the next president of the United States. In a stranger twist last week, the president-elect decided to try to school Representative John Lewis about getting more accomplished and doing less talking. The fact that Donald Trump appeared to forget what John Lewis has accomplished in his lifetime showed Trump’s limited understanding of history.
But what the tweets really did was emboldened a group of people to spout off some equally dumb stuff. In this case, Dinesh D’Souza called Lewis a “minor” figure in the civil rights movement. I decided that D’Souza’s position should be confronted, and I was not alone. Kevin Kruse (@KevinMKruse) did a fine job in his tweetstorm against D’Souza.
But there is a curious thing about the public understanding of the civil rights movement that occurs this time every year and it sounds a little like D’Souza’s tweets about civil rights history without the stupidity he registered. On or about MLK’s national holiday, folks start posting King quotations. They are often powerful and allow us to see why the man stood as such a frame for the movement. The quotations, however, diminish the man and his greatness. Every quote needs some kind of contextualization, and while the “dream” is important, the rest of that speech talks about economic opportunity and that was what got him labeled a communist. For all the praise D’Souza heaped on the Reverend Doctor, King’s rhetorical barbs thrown at those in power in the United States make him a national prophet but in ways that D’Souza does not fully comprehend. For all of those who love the peaceful King, his ability to agitate made his life full of anything but peace.
As I work through his evolving focus on Vietnam, I am struck by his attachment of American racism to both materialism and militarism. The three-headed monster created a nation hellbent on killing to maintain its comfortable lifestyle and that racism allowed white Americans to maintain their status. This King was not welcomed or quoted too frequently during his lifetime or even in the intervening decade after his death. With his condemnation of the war in Vietnam and his chiding that voting rights had not changed anything regarding economic opportunity for black Americans, MLK rubbed many the wrong way. Few thought of him as a leader after 1965 and by 1967 it had grown worse.
“Never has a long, hot summer dawned quite so early in spring—and never has the Negro leadership approached it in so deep a state of disarray. The civil-rights movement stands at the brink of another riot season, its black constituency more restive than ever, its white allies increasingly disaffected, its own command hopelessly divided over means and even basic ends. ‘The Movement is dead,’ one of its best and most knowledgeable Washington friends said last week. And, if the obituary is premature, it is no less certain that the Negro American has come to an hour of quickening crisis.”
Peter Goldman declared in the May 15, 1967, issue of Newsweek that King had failed to show true leadership by connecting the civil rights movement to the antiwar movement. Even King’s good friend Baynard Rustin had turned on him for attacking the Johnson administration about the war in Vietnam. To others, it appeared King was a leader looking for a movement. So the celebration we have this week about King the leader should be tempered by the historical reality that he was not completely in control of all events. That said, any tweet, post, or comment that suggests that we should quietly move on with our lives as Dr. King did is a boldface distortion of truth.
His insistence that Americans loved things more than people and war more that peace makes him a radical in every sense of that word. King envisioned a world where when we judge someone by that content of their character we will pay them a living wage and create access for them into the American dream. Anything less is unacceptable. Any activity the federal government pursued that did not follow that objective met his scorn. Business leaders felt his pressure as well on this issue. Economic opportunity in King’s vision meant a leveling of the wealth in this nation. War showed America’s dependence on violence to meet its objectives. For a nation to truly live out the creed that all people are created equal means that violence cannot be a national strategy. In a nation that remains at war for more than sixteen years, King’s quotations should sting us into recognizing that any drone attack on an enemy is an attack on ourselves. He really believed that swords should be shaped into plowshares. For that conviction, King was a threat and unAmerican, something we would likely hurl at him today. And this is the point: he was a prophet because the three-headed monster has not left us.