Movie Friday: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Other America

There are few things that get me more irate than people who selectively quote Martin Luther King Jr. as their ‘trump card’ for their argument. While I think Dr. King had some fantastic ideas in his time, he was looking at reality through a theological lens without the benefit of scientific training; furthermore, the world he knew is now more than 50 years old. To suggest that disagreeing with Dr. King in 2013 means that your argument is incorrect is a naked appeal to authority that happens far too frequently.

Even beyond that though, most of the quoting I come across is sliced out of a single speech (the ‘Dream’ speech), without even the courtesy or intellectual rigour to quote the lines in context of the rest of the speech:

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.

If someone wants to try and reconcile that passage with the idea that Dr. King was colour blind, they’re welcome to waste their time doing so. Also everyone is invited to evaluate whether or not the conditions that prompt that speech are radically or even meaningfully different than they were in 1963.

The fact is that Dr. King wrote more than one speech, and his beliefs went beyond simple platitudes of “colour of skin vs. content of character”. Failing to appreciate this not only gives us a skewed and wildly inaccurate view of both the man and his contribution to history, but it robs us of the wealth of thoughts he did contribute. So today I invite you to brew a cup of coffee, sit down somewhere comfortable, and watch the video linked here.

I’m going to extract my own handful of pull-quotes that I think would surprise anyone who thinks either that MLK was “colour blind”, or that he was fundamentally a laissez-faire libertarian when it came to solving racial problems:

It’s not merely a struggle against extremist behavior toward Negroes. And I’m convinced that many of the very people who supported us in the struggle in the South are not willing to go all the way now. I came to see this in a very difficult and painful way. In Chicago the last year where I’ve lived and worked. Some of the people who came quickly to march with us in Selma and Birmingham weren’t active around Chicago. And I came to see that so many people who supported morally and even financially what we were doing in Birmingham and Selma, were really outraged against the extremist behavior of Bull Connor and Jim Clark toward Negroes, rather than believing in genuine equality for Negroes. And I think this is what we’ve gotta see now, and this is what makes the struggle much more difficult.

This is fundamentally the same argument I make here.

In 1863 the Negro was freed from the bondage of physical slavery. But at the same time, the nation refused to give him land to make that freedom meaningful. And at that same period America was giving millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that America was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor that would make it possible to grow and develop, and refused to give that economic floor to its black peasants, so to speak.

So I guess ‘in your face’, people who talk about “handouts” and how their forebears never received one. Affirmative action for white people is old news.

But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.

Tone scolds to the left, please.

But after saying this, let me say another thing which gives the other side, and that is that although it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. Even though it may be true that the law cannot change the heart, it can restrain the heartless. Even though it may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, it can restrain him from lynching me. And I think that’s pretty important also. And so while the law may not change the hearts of men, it can and it does change the habits of men.

That sounds decidedly non-laissez, but it certainly seems faire.

And I finally said to him that it’s a nice thing to say to people that you oughta lift yourself by your own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he oughta lift himself by his own bootstraps. And the fact is that millions of Negroes, as a result of centuries of denial and neglect, have been left bootless.

Conservatives, you too can go sit in the corner with the libertarians and the tone scolds. Brother Martin has no time for your foolishness.

Now one of the answers it seems to me, is a guaranteed annual income, a guaranteed minimum income for all people, and for our families of our country. It seems to me that the Civil Rights movement must now begin to organize for the guaranteed annual income.

Well shit, no wonder they killed him.

Anyway, the point I want to get across here is that the sanitized, family-friendly Martin Luther King Jr. that we know in popular culture bears little-to-no resemblance to the actual guy. Even by today’s standards, Dr. King was a ‘man of the left’, complete with the radically liberal ideas and intolerance for systemic inertia to go with it. Anyone wishing to quote him to refute the positions of anti-racists would do well to put in a bit of work before assuming the presence of very much daylight between what he believes and what they (we) do.

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  1. logicpriest says

    The more I learn of what MLK actually said, the more I like him. While dated, a lot of it still hits on great points.

    Much better than the – ahem – whitewashed version I learned about in the southern US education system.

  2. Nentuaby says

    The cultural positioning of Doctor King is a really interesting thing. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world I would say has been “unfairly painted as a moderate.” But people who want to advance the idea that he was the “negotiator” really do play down the muscularity of the Nonviolent Direct Action philosophy. It pays to keep in mind that the Civil Rights Movement had a way about it of nonviolently shutting down entire civic economies! It was not a place and time for “please.”

  3. cherrybombsim says

    “Also everyone is invited to evaluate whether or not the conditions that prompt that speech are radically or even meaningfully different than they were in 1963.”

    I can only suppose that you are too young to remember what things in 1963 were actually like. For only two examples, 1963 was the first year that black people and white people were allowed in the same swimming pool here in Dallas. They were not legally allowed to marry each other yet. (I believe something else happened that year, but I forget what.) The attitudes of adults at that time were shaped by their younger days in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and blacks were respectful and subservient while whites were un-selfconsciously complacent and lordly. You probably would say that they still are complacent and lordly, but there is a considerable difference in degree.

    The quote from Dr. King about legislating morality is right on target here. At the time, it was the laws themselves that still needed to be changed. Believe me, there is a huge difference between conditions then and now. It’s sometimes hard to see over a shorter time span, because attitudes change over generations rather than years. People these days are often unhappy about racial relations, but they are not outraged and polarized to nearly the same level. It’s comparing a dispute over a parking space to open warfare.

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