Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday last January brought the usual celebratory stories to the media. How did we get here, and why do those celebratory articles sit alongside reports of backlash against Muslims and unarmed African Americans being killed by police? As we celebrate Dr. King’s achievements, grieve his assassination at the age of 39, and inspire ourselves to act, I offer you a story about how he changed my thinking 48 years after his death.
“We do no honor to Brother Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by forgetting how much he was hated during his life. Through the propaganda machine of public memory it is far easier to engage in self-congratulation about Dr. King the patriot and hero, than to own how many of us who embrace his memory at present may very well have considered him a scourge if we were one of his contemporaries.” (Indomitable – Chauncey DeVega)
At the the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. King gave the speech widely remembered as “I Have a Dream,” indicting discrimination against African Americans, and advocating freedom and equality for all. A few months earlier, a poll by Gallup had shown that 54% of respondents who were familiar with King held a positive or neutral opinion of him.
The speech and the man are praised by people all over the political spectrum today. So you could be forgiven for thinking that “I Have a Dream” rallied public opinion to Dr. King’s cause. I did. I was wrong.
Two years later, a repeat poll showed positive opinions had gone from 54% to 49%, and in 1966 it was 32%.
Let us never forget that sometimes we change our minds for the worse.
Dr. King’s life offers a deep well from which white progressives like me can learn. For example, when a white American appeals to poor and working class whites about how unfairly they are treated, he runs for President. When an African-American appeals to people of all colours about interfering in the business of why they are poor, he gets shot.
But that’s a lesson for another day.
The lesson I want to focus on today is about those polls. Can we be sure the polls were unbiased? Of course not. But as a group, white people are likely to have been well represented. As early as 1963, no public figure included in the poll ranked lower than Dr. King except Khrushchev.
So it’s especially infuriating to learn what happened when, after that 1966 poll, in the face of overwhelming and worsening public disapproval, Dr. King gave another famous speech. Called “Beyond Vietnam: Time to Break Silence,” it marked a culmination of 2 years in which Dr. King began publicly speaking out against the Vietnam War and the policies that created it. In that speech, he weaves together the anti-poverty initiatives that were cut to help fund the war, the resulting financial necessity that pushed the poorest people into the most dangerous military roles, the racism toward African-Americans and Vietnamese, and the bitterly ironic fact that all this was justified in the name of defending freedom.
[T]he war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.
True compassion … comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.
[C]ommunism is a judgement against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. “
Because there’s a lesson to learn here, for those of us who are white anti-racist allies, and it’s not exactly about Dr. King but about ourselves and our forebears.
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
In response to that message, “King became persona non grata almost overnight. He was savaged from every side as an ingrate, a traitor, an enemy of the state”, Obery M. Hendricks wrote last week. Dr. King was called too “radical”, dismissed as a “communist”, and accused of having “diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people.” Not only by the 68% of people who, Gallup tells us, already hated or dismissed him, but by individual progressives and the white liberal media who had previously supported him.
About two years ago, I was supported by my Meeting to attend a seminar at Pendle Hill Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation. Between sessions, two or three times I found myself engrossed in conversation with the Friends in Residence. They had both been active in the Civil Rights Movements of the 50s and 60s; they were engaged politically, intellectually, and spiritually; and they took time to sit with different people at every meal. I remember being taken aback at how easily and deeply a group of strangers at a lunch table engaged in thought-provoking conversations about racism, Quakerism, and political strategy. Pendle Hill is a special place, I thought to myself.
That was only part of the truth.
Barely a month later, the Pendle Hill newsletter announced that one of those Friends had died, mentioning his role as a leader in the civil rights movement. Feeling grateful to have had a chance to meet and learn from this remarkable man, I did a quick Google search to see if I could learn any more about him.
I learning something, alright. The Vincent Harding I remembered from the lunch table wrote the speech called “Beyond Vietnam.”
I sat down hard, feeling my own perceptions shift under my feet. Had I missed an opportunity? Could I have listened and learned more carefully? Why did I think more highly of him for being a famous speech writer that I didn’t know about, than for being a mentor whose effectiveness I had seen with my own eyes? In hindsight, I don’t think I fumbled my opportunity, and it’s his work that amazed me, not his celebrity. Well, ok, I am a little star struck! But I’m getting over it.
Harding and his partner Al-Josie Aldrich Harding invited all of us into what felt like an urgent, yet contemplative, attention. The setting at Pendle Hill helped. All I missed was the opportunity to be nervous and awestruck. I doubt that the Hardings would have appreciated taking any precious minutes away from planning fundamental social change, to squander them on fawning. I owe thanks to my Meeting as well, for helping me cultivate that contemplative immediacy as a habit. I do wish I had asked Harding how he decided that the time and place were right — to do and say things that people were not ready to hear.
But that’s the lesson for a different story.
The lesson I’m trying to learn from this story is about who gets lionized, and why. Who gets dismissed or demeaned, and why. It’s possible that as we did in 1963, 1967, and many other times, we’re still today both lionizing and dismissing Dr. King — for the wrong reasons. In keeping with my attempts to learn Quaker ways, I bring you my lessons in the form of queries.
- Who today is attacked as Dr. King was — for being too radical, too strident, too alienating, too soon? How can we resist participating in these attacks without romanticizing away the radicalism that inspires the backlash?
- Whom do we praise today, after having left them to struggle alone in the past, in order to put ourselves on the right side of history? Are we open about our change of heart, so that we and others can learn from it?
- Who from the past do we claim as our spiritual and ethical predecessors? Are we willing to see them whole, or do we need to oversimplify them for our own comfort?
- Who from the present do we aspire to emulate? Are we willing to hear them out when they are unfairly accused of extremism? What about when they are accurately accused of extremism?
- What are we not doing because we fear people are not ready to hear? How do we decide whether to go ahead anyway? And how do we care for ourselves during times of backlash?
Hendricks writes of Dr. King’s spiritual practice: “From a biblical perspective, [we must] judge whether policies and laws and cultural practices treat the people’s needs as holy.”
Do we treat the people’s needs as holy? For that idea to have integrity, “the people” has to include ourselves, our attackers, and our historically distorted heroes.