I had several people ask me “Are you off for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday?” and one friend said “I hope every Black person gets the day off.” My co-worker went as far as to say, “We marched and fought too hard for that day, I’m not going to work on that day.” Actually I did work, willingly. It brought a feeling that I remembered first having when I was a little boy.
What I remember most is the brief minutes that they taught Black History when I was in school. Often this consisted of learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and then a list of notable Black inventors. The history of the civil rights was reduced to simply the Montgomery bus boycott and the march on Washington. Unfortunately for one of my teachers, my father was a fairly radical thinker. He was the type of man that challenged anything someone set before him as the truth. He was never an actual Black Panther (I never asked him why he didn’t join) but most of his friends were and the type of minds that he engaged with were radical. My father asked what they taught me about Black History in school one day and I told him. He asked, “That’s all?” Then he proceeded to take me to a stack of books he had: “Nigger” (the autobiography of Dick Gregory) and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” were among those titles. He asked me if I knew about Malcolm X. I knew of Malcolm X simply because my father had one of those huge posters in the front of the apartment over his turntables. My father pulled out a video and told me to watch some of the speeches of Malcolm X with him. He told me that he preferred Malcolm’s philosophy to that of Dr. King and he told me why. My father told me to go to school and ask my teach about Malcolm X. I went to class and when it was time, I asked. My teacher gave me some short synopsis. I asked her about”By Any Means Necessary” and she looked offended and went on to say — in an offhand kind of way — how Dr. King was better than Malcolm because he was non-violent. That day in that class at the age of 7 or 8, I had my first feelings about Dr. King and his American notoriety.
The American Legacy of Dr. King, for many years, was how he was this peaceful, gentle, brave man. They characterized him like most Christians (who ignore the revolutionary aspects) characterize Jesus: meek and low. Throughout school I would often hear the same adjectives repeatedly applied to Dr. King and only the mention of his peacefulness and his ability to love his enemies. This, ofcourse, is a narrative that works for America, the Protestant Country. Let’s not talk about the bloodshed, the brutality, the rage, the rebellion, and the silent war that was the Civil Rights movement. We’ll talk about the good Christian Negro who came and showed America the err of its ways. Oh America, no one lies like you do.
In the granting of the rights and in the wake of Dr. King’s death, America made him a martyr. He became larger than life. A good brown face to model for the rest of the Blacks how they should be. They made a martyr of Dr. King and in doing so neutralized the radical nature of who he was, what he was doing, and what he endeavored to do. Dr. King, the epitome of gentle, Christian love became the perfect antithesis to the growing violent revolutionaries like Malcolm X and The Black Panther Party. Rarely is publicly discussed how Dr. King lamented over the results of the civil rights movement; how he feared what would come from integration; how he began to understand the thoughts and feelings of his fellow freedom fighters.
Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
When I Think about King
When I think about what Dr. King’s theory of non-violence really meant, I do not see it as some epitomizing Christian ideal nor do I see it as some fearful passive act of weakness. In Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” he explains the facets of overall purpose of non violence:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
Dr. King’s non-violence was not simply a fostering of his Christian ideals. It was strategic move to gain attention. Dr. King knew that White people would expect violent retaliation. He knew that if Civil Rights activists refused to be violent while their oppressors were brutally violent, this would expose them as the true savages. That is what the non-violent movement accomplished. What human being with any soul can look at the images of the that movement and not feel something. When the world saw what America was doing to Black people and shook their heads, then America, from shame, began to rethink her policies. Non-violence wasn’t about passivity. It was about the activists maintaining their humanity so that they did not become that which they opposed and it was about exposing America for the monster that it was.
I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From Birmingham Jail
I think about the fact that even Dr. King’s non-violent theories of action were considered extreme to his fellow Black Baptist clergymen. Many did not support Dr. King’s ideas of resisting oppression. Dr. King was a revolutionary for the Black church — which at the time was always the heart of the Black community. Dr. King helped to break the historical binds that Christianity had placed on Black people by turning them into passive endurers of oppression who gather every Sunday to long for Heaven because Earth is so Evil. What he did taught the Black church about it’s power (which in current times is so neglected — but that’s another post) to encourage, to motivate, to give hope, and to bring about tangible change.
I think about what the Montgomery Bus Boycott was teaching Black people then and now: the power of economics. Dr. King wasn’t defending Rosa Parks with the boycott. Dr. King had developed a strategy to use the power (in America this means wealth and influence) to get the country’s attention and make them listen tot he voices of Black people. Dr. King knew that the majority of the people using public transportation were Black people and that if why stopped using it, the industry would be hit so hard that they would at least have to consider discontinuing their treatment of Black riders. And he was right. Today, we neglect what he’s taught us as Black Americans have a buying power projected to be $1.1 Trillion dollars by the year 2015.
I also think about the way that Dr. King’s efforts embodied and inspired Black people to develop a collective imagining and to work together to bring that imagining into being. Dr. King knew that the sum of a collective of individuals is always greater than that of the individual. How profound a thought this is for Black people who, above any other nationality I have ever encountered, worship at the throne of selfishness and individualism.
The problem is that all we remember and all we think and speak about is the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that American History has served up to us on a passive non-violent platter. All we can recall is the dream of White people and Black people integrating. We miss the most profound, the most brilliant, the most prophetic aspects of Dr. King and what really makes him worth remembering. He was a revolutionary, an intellectual, a prophet, and a warrior. He loved Black people — most of whom he did not and would not ever know — so much that he stepped to the forefront at the risk of losing his family and his life.
I am often saddened around Dr. King’s birthday. Mostly because when I watch Black people celebrate, take their day off from work, and/or perform some community service act in remembrance of him, all too often they aren’t even honoring the true man that Dr. King was. And I cringe when Black people say that we are living Dr. King’s dream because the perception that produces a thought like that to the extent that it could fall from someone’s lips is so astoundingly ignorant of the man whose legacy they speak of.
We are not hardly living Dr. King’s dream. We have in fact fallen below the accomplishments he made in his time. There is no unity among Black people as Dr. King tried to teach us. We don’t stand together in support of a collective imagining. We don’t love each other enough to be jailed, beaten, or killed for one another. We don’t utilize our economic power in support of giving voice to our community. We don’t have the attention of the legislation (unless its election time) and governing powers. If anything, we have failed Dr. King.
“I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply – We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”
(- Dr. King to Harry Belafonte) Harry Belafonte, Is America A Burning House?
We are in fact living his greatest nightmare. The state and minds of Black people today are what Dr. King feared most in his last days. He feared that all of the accomplishments of his fighting had given us an invitation to death by integrating into a burning house destined to dilapidate and that we would not realize it until it was too late. So here we are in 2014, finally feeling the heat of the fire beyond what can be ignored. The burning is all around us: sever unemployment and under-employment, the fading of affirmative action and social welfare programs, the rising of the bar of material success (beyond the reach of the majority of Black people), the devaluing of the family structure, the desecration of love as an ideal, the growing envy and distrust of one another, the excessive competition, and the worship of capitalism.
I’m sorry this post wasn’t cheery and full of cliches to make us smile at the memory of Dr. King. I’m sure in comparison to what others have written this must seem pretty ugly. But the truth is ugly. What I feel when I remember Dr. King is somber and introspective. It makes me draw into myself and ask the hard questions that I would probably not want to share the answers with anyone. However, that is what has to happen. If we are going to make up the ground that we’ve lost and get back to making progress.
I’m not sayin: I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man
Belafonte, Harry. Is America A Burning House?
King, Dr. Martin Luther. Letter From Birmingham Jail.