Dr. King’s birthday is coming up soon- five days away- and I’m already cringing.
Martin Luther King Junior was a towering figure in world history. He was one of the great leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the United States and as he aged, became increasingly radicalized. He left behind some of the greatest artifacts in American history- including the Letter from Birmingham Jail, several important books and tracts, and some of the most powerful speeches one can imagine. His life was cut short- he was assassinated at the age of 39. In that gruesome circumstance, he was joined by two other towering figures of his time- Malcolm X and Che Guevara.
Most Americans remember MLK not for his complexity of thought, philosophical prose, stunning organizing ability, self-sacrifice, fearlessness, solidarity with the world’s downtrodden, but, instead, for one speech- the famous “I Have a Dream” peroration.
“The Speech” has been the subject of thousands of studies and has lived many lives. Ironically, it is invoked mostly by people whose politics are either antithetical or otherwise unaligned with King’s**. His throaty exhortation of hope that one day his children would be “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” has been a powerful weapon in the hands of the Right and specifically of those who aim to dismantle affirmative action. Less cruelly but just as damaging, the speech, with its easy to agree with sentiments and anodyne pleas, has for Liberals been a blunting instrument for MLK’s radicalism and a self-congratulatory salve for their own hypocrisies. After all, “I must be a decent person if I can agree with Doctor King.”
Rather more banal that these examples is the torrent of messages on social media on and around MLK’s birthday each year. Every two-penny executive on LinkedIn and elsewhere pays false homage to MLK. It’s easy to do so. It signals great virtue to suggest – in mealy-mouthed and trite terms- that all people should get along and that racism should magically end. Paens to Malcolm are however nowhere to be seen. More importantly, the post-1965 MLK is also forgotten. Neatly. The MLK who took a clear anti-war position, the MLK who wanted a poor peoples’ march on DC, the MLK who called the US out as the largest purveyor of violence in the world, the MLK who fulminated against capitalists, the MLK who eschewed the “Drum Major Instinct”—that MLK doesn’t exist. Only “the speech” exists.
Irony dies a thousand deaths during his birthday. A man who hated excess consumerism has his birthday herald “MLK Day Sales.” A man who hated peoples’ competitive instincts and desire to “win” has his birthday signal the common desire to elevate the Corporation and its predatory behavior. The inversion is Orwellian to say the least.
The intellectual and moral hypocrisy that surrounds the boasts and signals around MLK’s birthday is astounding. Hypocrites don’t cringe when beholding themselves. But the rest of us should.
** Two fantastic resources that explore this are Gary Younge’s “The Speech” and Michael Eric Dyson’s “Tears We Cannot Stop.”
Originally published in SubStack