Monday, January 21, 2013

MLK's Contested Yet Universal Blueprint for Freedom

MLK's Contested Yet Universal Blueprint for Freedom:
Like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Orwell, Václav
Havel, and the very best of our political/literary heroes, Rev.
Martin Luther King, Jr., led a life and left a written record
monumental enough to inspire people
who couldn't agree less with one another
For the president of the United States, King is a reason to

embrace National Service
. For the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops and the attorney general of Virginia, King is a reason to

engage in civil disobedience against the president's signature
. He's a hero to military
anti-war activists
; invoked in the cause of
empowering Palestinians
and fighting "for
a secure Israel
," and used by
both sides of the current gun debate
Even King's most famous line from his most famous speech—"I have
a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation
where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the
content of their character"—is deployed
with equal fervor
by both sides in the enduring battles over
affirmative action.
For the dwindling ranks of
King critics
, such heavily contested interpretation may point
to ideological incoherence and
fundamental hypocrisy fanned by decades of canonization
. But I
would suggest an alternate view.
The texts we argue about most—the Bible, the Constitution,
Orwell's wartime essays, MLK's civil rights sermons—are the ones
whose force of enlightenment, poetry, passion, and morality have
risen above the cacophany of human language to almost universally
stir souls and inspire liberation. People don't fight over words
that only apply to one side of most arguments.
It is no accident that King was at his most rhetorically
persuasive when reaching back to the source code of Thomas
Jefferson and The Declaration of
, portraying the Civil Rights movement as an act of
cashing a check on the "promisory note" contained within the
"magnificent words" that "all men, yes, black men as well as white
men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness." Like the Declaration itself, MLK's
words were considered radical upon utterance, yet universal within
a couple of generations.
As a white Californian of weird politics and indifferent
religion born
a few months after King was assassinated
, my inspirations from
MLK are necessarily different than those of Baby Boomers,
Millenials, or people of color, and are not solely applicable to
issues involving race. For me, the source code that keeps on
giving, that challenges our complacency while offering a four-step
guide to overcoming it, is King's magnificent Letter
From a Birmingham Jail
, addressed in the literal sense to his
skeptical fellow clergymen, but also to every American who has come
along since.
"I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what
happens in Birmingham," he explained to his more reticent
contemporaries. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice
everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,
tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly,
affects all indirectly."
You would have a hard time finding a more concisely written
universal call to action. But that wasn't King's only arrow in his
quiver against complacency. Switching to the specific, he paints a
vivid, deeply personal, and all-too-believable picture of what
paternalistic calls for patience sound like to the oppressed:
For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear
of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost
always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our
distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional
and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving
with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we
still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee
at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never
felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you
have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and
drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate
filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and
sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million
Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the
midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue
twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your
six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park
that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling
up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored
children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form
in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her
personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white
people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son
who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so
mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to
sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your
automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are
humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and
"colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name
becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes
"John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected
title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by
the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance,
never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner
fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a
degenerating sense of "nobodiness"—then you will understand why we
find it difficult to wait.
As pure depiction of the mental prisons erected by
authoritarians and bullies, this passage ranks with Solzhenitsyn,
or even Kafka. But like Havel's "The Power
of the Powerless
," King's letter can also be read as a
practical guide for overcoming the hideous regime under
There are two essential steps in the letter's self-help guide:
Using nonviolent civil disobedience to violate and thus advertise
unjust laws, and (much less remarked on) preparing
yourself for such protest. As he put it,
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:
collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist;
negotiation; self purification; and direct action.
In our rosy, conflict-centered view on history, we remember the
direct action, forget the negotiation, and all
too often ignore the collection of facts and related
self purification. Like Havel (who King had an obvious
influence on), MLK understood that a well-portrayed truth was a
potent weapon against the empire of lies, both as a shaming
exercise aimed at those on the sidelines, and as an irresistable
lure for more brave-hearted activists. Speaking real truth to
unjust power has proven to be one of history's most effective
"If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the
truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to
forgive me," King closes his letter with, notably. "If I have said
anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a
patience that allows me to settle for anything less than
brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me." To paraphrase Orwell, even
describing what's in front of your face requires—and deserves—a
constant struggle.
In 2013, we have no shortage of morally suspect laws to oppose,
starting with a drug war that has debased our constitutional rights
and created a grotesque prison-industrial complex that warehouses
millions of disporportionately minority prisoners. As King argued,
radically and inspirationally, "one has a moral responsibility to
disobey unjust laws." Thanks to his example, and the elusive,
cross-partisan appeal of his words, we have a blueprint for doing
just that.