As an historian whose graduate school exam fields included African history and the comparative history of slavery, who has taught African-American history and U.S. ethnic history (also ancient Greek and Roman humanities, but that's another story), and who got into the kind of history I studied partly as an accident of seeking perspective on my parents' small role as white footsoldiers in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, I always experience the holiday honoring the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. a bit ambivalently.
On the one hand I think it is culturally important that we have the holiday and that creating it was a good step. It honors not only a great man, but also, at its best, treats him as a synecdoche, a part representing a whole, for the wider struggles for equality, justice and peace in the United States. But on the other hand, public commemoration of the day, particularly in the mass media and to some extent in education, often falls short of that best. It thereby misses opportunities to focus on the continuing challenges of race and class, peace and justice in our country. Too often we see imagery that evades the historical realities of the Reverend King's story and that of the Civil Rights movement. Even worse, at times, some commentators cherry-pick King's words and misconstrue them for ends that obstruct our continuing struggles to reconstruct America on a more fair, egalitarian, humane and decent basis.
To begin with, consider mass media pabulum about the struggles for Civil Rights that oddly minimizes the struggles, even while honoring black people for standing up for themselves and their rights, by neglecting to mention why and against what they were struggling. The aim perhaps is to avoid giving offense to members of the white majority or perhaps to try to include us. This sort of ad, news story or presentation provides an weirdly distorted picture, in which we see black people heroically struggling and demanding their civil rights, while white America is standing on the sidelines, cheering them on. In effect the Civil Rights movement is reduced to an exercise in mass shadow-boxing.
Because virtually no one now favors formal, legally enforced racial discrimination, that lack of support is falsely projected onto what is still the relatively recent past.
At the time, of course, white America did not as whole cheer the movement on. A small minority of whites took part or supported it actively. A much larger minority fiercely and bitterly and often violently resisted the movement's demands. The great bulk of white people were somewhere in between. Some genuinely wished to see the movement succeed but did little, others were more grudging but agreed that the time had come, others passively went along with the the changes but didn't really want them. Eventually enough whites moved and were moved sufficiently away from outright opposition and toward support that Congress (bipartisanly, with most of the strongest opposition coming from southern Democrats) and President Johnson were able to pass the key Civil Rights laws: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
And that's the point -- the struggles were needed to change hearts and minds, and they were struggles against real, forceful, determined opponents who were as American as any of us. The struggles were long, decades long, and hard and painful and bloody, as is attested among other things by persistent FBI harassment and two assassination attempts against King himself, the second tragically successful.
As an antidote to anodyne presentations, I commend to you the wonderful television serial "Eyes on the Prize," directed by Henry Hampton, now available again after being suppressed by copyright issues for years. You have many choices of reminder, from Emmet Till's open coffin to Bull Connor's iconic snarling dogs and fire hoses to white mobs in Little Rock and in Chicago, KKK members in sheets and members of White Citizens Councils in suits and dresses (and, in the second series, the black man being speared with an American flag in front of the Massachusetts state capitol, near a memorial to African-American Civil War soldiers). But the episode that still astonishes me each time I see it is the riot by white students at the University of Mississippi upon James Meredith's integrating it -- Trent Lott was a student there then. The students overturned and torched cars, they threw stones and bottles, they shot guns, all aimed at hundreds of federal marshalls and other agents, wounding many, who did little to fight back, simply hunkered down. Each time I see it, I know in my head, my heart and my stomach that if it had been at an all-black university, they would not have been so restrained. There would have been a massacre.
A variant on the downplaying achievement theme is The March of Progress, an American version of the British Whig interpretation of history: that each day and every day the country is getting better and better in every way. Regarding Civil Rights, this appears both in media and I think to a degree in education as well. It takes the guise of propositions that the Civil Rights movement in some uncomplicated way reflected the true founding values of the country. Therefore its victories should be seen as the victories of the Founders, as an inevitable fruition of the seeds they had sown, a simple fulfillment of destiny. Here is a place where Dr. King's words can be plucked from context and put to distorting ends, for, as he famously said, "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice."
But why did King speak those words? They were spoken not in a time of certainty, but in a time of uncertainty. They were spoken to people who were wearied and fatigued and hurt, facing "Massive Resistance" politically, and mobs, hostile police, White Citizens Councils and the KKK -- sometimes overlapping groups. They were spoken to rally those people to keep up the fight despite the obstacles, despite defeats, despite feelings that no progress or not enough progress was being made.
And the Reverend King was well aware of the real history. In real history, the ideals expressed in the founding documents have not been self-actuating, written as they were by founders who among other human flaws were by and large profoundly racist, often enough owners of slaves. Those founders, although in some turmoil about it from the 1770s to the 1790s, at the end of the day created a country conceived in liberty, but also in slavery, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, but also that some men might be enslaved by others because of the color of their skin, made into property that the national and state governments were bound to defend and enforce. (Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall declined to participate in certain proposed celebrations of the Bicentennial of the Constitution unless he did so dressed as an enslaved footman, a way of expressing disdain for pseudo-patriotic whitewashing history's complexities.)
It took a mass abolition movement of highly variable character half a century and a hugely bloody and destructive civil war to resolve those contradictions on the side of basic liberty. As for being created equal, the post-Civil War constitutional amendments aimed at ensuring equality were rendered dead letters in the 1880s, 1890s and 1900s, with disfranchisement, the emergence of widespread lynching, and the legal formalization of Jim Crow.
As stated, Martin Luther King, Jr. was profoundly aware of that history. We know this for the simple reason that the central goal of the Civil Rights movement, reflected in the very term "civil rights," was to breathe life back into those dead letters, to make real after a century the promises of not just the Thirteenth Amendment (abolition of slavery) but the Fourteenth (equality before the law) and Fifteenth (right to vote) Amendments.
Yet somehow within a few short years after the great civil rights laws were passed, those dead-letter decades entered a kind of collective amnesia. In considering the persistence of racism and racialized inequality in the present, public discourse has focused on "the legacy of slavery," now long past, and virtually ignored the legacy of Jim Crow and its less legally obligatory Northern and Western counterpart practices, which remained active within living memory of today, even after the great laws were passed, since laws are not self-enforcing. Focusing on the more distant past has made it easier for many white people to entertain the illusion that they have not benefited from structural racial inequality.
The real lesson to be learned from this history is not that the Civil Rights movement embodied the greatness of American ideals, but that those ideals are only as real as we choose to make them in our actions. That was the wonder and glory of the Civil Rights movement, hundreds of thousands and millions of people seeking out ways to insist that the words be put into action. Other movements for liberation and equality have done this as well, over the decades and centuries in the U.S. There has been nothing inevitable about any of it. Nor has progress been unconditional; Jim Crow is only one example of sometimes protracted periods of regression and repression.
The mass character of the Civil Rights movement brings me to another source of ambivalence about the MLK birthday holiday: The use of King to promote a Great Man theory of history. Too often the picture is painted that Martin Luther King made the Civil Rights revolution almost single-handedly. The reality was that Civil Rights was above all a grassroots movement. King's main roles were as an inspirer and an almost preternaturally eloquent spokesman. In his day this caused considerable tension at times, as local organizers of local campaigns wrestled with the advantages of having King come and participate, in inspiration and in drawing national attention, versus the disruptiveness that could sometimes accompany King and his entourage.
That is not to say King was just a figurehead. He was a genuine leader, an organizer, or at least a convener of organizers, who was able to use his tremendous personal abilities, and the attention lavished on him by white-controlled media seeking a single figure to speak for the movement, to build that movement.
But at the end of the day the movement made Martin Luther King, Jr. who he became more than the other way around. He was a great leader, but his greatness was the greatness of his followers, something he knew well and expressed often.
The perverse irony of over-lionizing King is that it tends to support inaction, the opposite of what he would have wished, I believe. The portrayal of MLK doing it all himself sets an impossible standard for any given individual. Few of us could approach being anything like what Dr. King was in reality; no one could be what he is portrayed as being, because he was not that himself. He relied on others and leaned upon them. He formed and encouraged organizations and groups. He inspired others, surpassingly, but in turn drew inspiration from those who sacrificed when they had so little to start with.
In addition, the image of King-as-the-Movement encourages passivity, through the absence of leaders who look like what we are told he was. Where is the Martin Luther King, Jr. of today? Well, she may be out there, but if he is, she won't create the next movement for equality and justice out of nothing. Rather, people making movements will find and raise up their leaders, even as the people of Montgomery who had been organizing for years before the 1954 bus boycott found King and raised him up, even as the hundreds of pastors in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference chose King to be their key voice.
Of a different order of problem is King's speech at the great Civil Rights demonstration at the March on Washington in August of 1963. I have no ambivalence about the speech itself. Listening to it, with or without a picture, gives me chills and brings tears to my eyes. It is one of my sources of pride in my father that he was there in Washington that day (he is two months younger than Martin Luther King was, who would have been 80 this year had he lived -- I was four at the time of the speech). The tendency to excerpt King's speech down to just a couple of phrases in the peroration makes me sad, more than anything else, because of the richness and fighting quality of the speech that is lost. But at least it is not universal, even in broadcast media and certainly not in education.
But I hate one particular abuse of the speech, which is the use of the King's dream that his daughter would someday "be judged not by the color of her skin, but by the content of her character," to attack affirmative action.
We need to be clear about this. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a moral radical -- not an ideologue, but not a mainstream politician or a "centrist". He sought to bring people together, but not on any terms or at any cost, rather on a basis of freedom, equality and justice.
When it came to social policy, by the mid-sixties at the latest he was a left-liberal or a social democrat. He was concerned, among other things, about injustice and inequity in access to health care. On April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was murdered, he spoke out against the U.S. war in Viet Nam. In 1968 when he was killed he had begun shifting focus to economic issues as the next phase of the Civil Rights movement. He was organizing a Poor People's Campaign, from which he took time out to support a strike by African-American sanitation workers in Memphis when Ray shot him. He was focusing his thinking and his articulations on class inequality and its interactions with racial ideas, on the ideological work that creating an image of "the poor" as members of racial minorities and of "workers" and white did in harming the interests, organizing and solidarity of all, for the benefit of the wealthy.
And in that context, Martin Luther King, Jr. supported affirmative action. It was not enough to formally outlaw discrimination, or even to enforce the new laws. There were persistent effects that required redress. King's support for affirmative action was in no way contradictory to the idea of focusing on the content of character. On the contrary, that's exactly the point of affirmative action when it's done right: looking at the content of character shaped by struggle against adversity and at the potential for development it may contain. And, from a different angle, it's a challenge on the part of people with gate-keeper powers to examine the content of their own characters, to distinguish between judgments of a candidate for something that have a genuine bearing on the decision, versus judgments based on personal comfort and liking someone because they embody something familiar (never mind cruder forms of prejudice).
To end on a positive note, so far I like the increasing emphasis on making Martin Luther King's birthday a day of service. This seems to me to cut against the passivity-inducing ways of looking at King, conveying that it is what the people do, and do together, that matters. It also seems as if it has potential for development, for creativity in devising projects that bring people together to cooperate on common efforts on a basis of equality, who in the ordinary course of things might never meet, or not meet equally or work together, and so perhaps chip away at the de facto segregation that very much remains with us today.