I never miss an opportunity to grind my various axes, and MLK day gives me a tremendous reason to pull out one of my favorites. As the poster child of the Civil Rights movement and paragon of non-violent protest, MLK gets a lot of good press, and he should. Unlike, say, Malcom X, who is too radical and controversial to fit comfortably in the story of American progress, Martin Luther King Jr. receives front billing in the story of justice triumphing over racism and segregation. You all know the story: through faith, non-violence, and persistence in the face of hatred, MLK Jr. delivered America from its racist past and single-handedly ended racist politics in the United States.
Please excuse the sarcasm.
What frustrates me immensely about this — aside from the way the prevailing narrative marginalizes the millions of ordinary people who risk beatings, poverty, and imprisonment to fight for what they believed in — is the way that MLK’s legacy has been co-opted and appropriated by American elites. His struggle against civil rights is well remembered and taught to every schoolchild, but his views on war, inequality, and captialism are completely ignored or whitewashed.
This probably isn’t news to anyone reading my post (you pinko commies!), and each year is better than the last — for example, NPR produced an excellent report on the less well-known elements of MLK Jr.’s politics — but the majority of Americans still have to rely on what they’re taught in schools for their understanding of history, and this is uniformly inadequate. Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s legacy has been corrupted by the influence of a prevailing narrative that cannot tolerate even a whiff of socialism or radical thought.
I’m not proposing that we teach small children about MLK’s struggles with staying committed to non-violence or about his stance on reparations and basic income, but we absolutely ought to teach our high schoolers about it. It is immoral and unjust to misrepresent the politics of a martyr for justice. There’s nothing wrong with a little hero worship, but we do a great man a disservice by leaving aside some of his most strongly held beliefs when we tell his story.
By ignoring that he wasn’t uniformly nonviolent, that he sympathized with the oppressed and impoverished everywhere — including the Viet Cong — and that he firmly believed in the power of society to right wrongs, we intentionally rob Martin Luther King Jr. of his rightful legacy. There is no doubt in my mind that the real MLK Jr. would be deeply disappointed in today’s America, and that is something that we need to come to terms with. We can’t lionize a man as a representative of our democracy if he never would have accepted it if he were alive today.
History is not, contrary to popular opinion, a rigorous exercise in retrieving the relevant ‘truth’ from the dust of the archives — it is a deliberately curated, presented, and maintained narrative that rests largely in the hands of the powerful. Historians in recent years have done a passable job in correcting the errors of flawed memories, but governments have done very little — history requires constant reexamination, reflection, and critical analysis to be useful, and recent battles over textbooks in the country show how unlikely that is to happen. We need to demand more — a country must be built on a strong foundation, and ours is run through with falsehoods and omissions. The inoffensive, pacifist, all-American Martin Luther King Jr. might have been the figurehead we needed to repair our fractured nation in the 1960’s, but I have to believe that we can handle a more complicated truth now.
America is a nation of black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, but our exceptionalism is being eroded by the messy reality of the world and this country’s checkered past. In addition to acknowledging the great wrongs done in America’s name, we need to learn to accept the complicated figures, the flawed human beings, and the uncomfortably radical people who had a pivotal role in making this country what it is today. If we are not careful, we will all be Gatsby, unable to progress against the inexorable pull of the past.
A good place to start would be with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who was a great man, and a brave one. Not perfect, but powerfully good, which is so rare in our history. He deserves better than we have given him.