In August 1966, a few years after his historic march on Washington, Gallup polled the country on their views of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Thirty-three percent of Americans held a favorable view of the civil-rights leader, compared to the 66 percent who weren't thrilled with his actions on the public stage.
This makes sense. By 1966, Dr. King had moved from his familiar message of nonviolence and racial equality to a more radical attack on the foundations of American life. "When I say question the whole society," he says in his speech "Where Do We Go From Here?", "it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together." In pushing this message, King aligned himself with views -- black nationalism, left-wing redistributionism, and radical pacifism -- that were wildly at odds with the views of most Americans.
These days, Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most popular figures in American life. A more recent Gallup survey shows him with the support and admiration of 94 percent of Americans. His birthday is a national holiday, and yesterday -- the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington -- was supposed to mark the dedication of his memorial (Hurricane Irene disrupted those plans) and his official entry into our national pantheon of secular saints.
Like all saints, though, we've had to diminish Dr. King's message to inoffensive platitudes to make him acceptable to the country at large. The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial depicts a defiant King, but the King we celebrate isn't the one who declared, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." It isn't even the more palatable King who explained justice as "power correcting everything that stands against love." The Martin Luther King Jr. that we celebrate is more akin to the George Washington who never lied than any person who actually existed.
The celebrated Dr. King is a moderate, "color-blind" proponent of integrationism whose career began with Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, and ended with the "I Have a Dream Speech," and whose complete pacification is best demonstrated by the fact that he can be claimed by the Pentagon as a supporter of the war in Afghanistan, and appropriated by right-wing provocateurs as some kind of proto-Tea Partier.
In some sense, however, we have no choice but to celebrate the fictional King -- the United States in 2011 isn't a place where we can honor the Dr. King who lived without falling into sophistry. Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.'s quest for economic justice is absurd in a country where 25 million people are jobless, underemployed, or no longer looking for work, and large swaths of the political class are more interested in favoring the rich than they are with allieviating mass unemployment.
By the same token, honoring his commitment to nonviolence is a little silly when we spend more on our military than every other country combined and start wars provided we can muster a half-plausible justification. In a country that has both the highest inequality and the largest prison population of any developed nation, superficial celebrations of Dr. King's legacy are the only option, lest we attempt to handle a collective bout of cognitive dissonance.
An honest attempt to celebrate Dr. King's life and work would dispense with the monuments and celebrations and focus on any and all efforts to make this country work for its most marginal members. A massive march of the long-term unemployed, for example, would do more to honor Dr. King than any statue or memorial. Likewise, it's unrealistic to expect the government to embrace pacifism, but we could at least try to re-evaluate our national commitment to Theodore Roosevelt's declaration that "it is only the warlike power of a civilized people that can give peace to the world."
Dr. King's last Sunday-morning sermon, titled "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," was delivered during a service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968. In the middle of the sermon, as he addressed the myth that "time heals all," King made this astute point: "Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals."
There's nothing wrong with celebrating the extent to which we are removed from the racial segregation and the brutal violence of Jim Crow. But if we want to celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. who lived -- and not the one we have imagined -- then we should take this message to heart. Monuments are nice, but to honor Dr. King's memory, we need to recognize injustice and pledge to overcome it.
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