Everyone else is doing it, why not me?
When I was in seminary, I took a seminary on liberation theology. Early on, we had a discussion of the theological underpinnings of King's practice of non-violent social change, and its mixed legacy. I made the observation that the radical rejection of King's message and practice, the result of white intransigence in the face of the demands for a more just society from blacks, was understandable. The violence black protest brought out was horrific - no one can see footage of Bull Connor turning hoses on children and setting police dogs loose on innocent marchers and not be enraged - yet it was no different from the systemic violence under which blacks had lived for over two hundred years at that point. From the slave ship through the ripping away of one's identity - a new name, a new language, a whole new set of rules, the entire system of depersonalization involved in chattel slavery in the United States - to the imposition of a reign of terror over blacks at the end of Reconstruction (the lynch rope is the real symbol of Jim Crow, not the ubiquitous signs saying "Whites Only") violence was at the very heart of segregation.
King's demand that blacks reject violence stemmed, I am convinced, from the long experience of observing how an entire system of violence had deformed an entire population - morally, socially, culturally, politically - and he did not wish his people, those who had given his voice a leading role, to become so embittered, so filled with the desire for vengeance, to dehumanize the Other that the goal - a more just society - became lost.
Yet, precisely because of the violence necessary to sustain such a system, King's dream, regardless of its merits, was bound to fail. To get all Marxist, he heightened the tensions and contradictions within American society (initially in the south, but no less so in the north) to the point where simple choices were all that was left. When the first Black Power advocates spoke of "Violence being as American as cherry pie", they were speaking from experience - the experience of a besieged and battered people, bereft of even the tattered remnants of any links to others. The only claim black Americans had was upon the conscience of the vast middle class that was not exposed directly to this violence (it was King's genius that he recognized this and exploited it so well). Other than that, there were few allies - communists, perhaps, and socialists - to whom blacks could look for support as they sought to end, once and for all, the dehumanizing structures of segregation, upheld through the courts and lynch rope.
I was much less wordy than this when I made my statement, by the way.
I ended my comments by saying that King's idea of non-violent social change was misguided in the case of desegregation, because violence was at the very heart of the racial divide. I thought what I said was relatively uncontroversial. The white students in class - good liberals all - erupted. Some said that I had denounced King, his desire for the Christian love ethic to find a place in American social and political practice. Others said I overplayed the role of violence. Still others said that I didn't see the real benefits and gains African-Americans had made.
I think I really upset them when I said that I thought that too few people understood that King was as opposed to the Vietnam War as he was to segregation; that his opposition was rooted in his abhorrence of systemic American violence perpetrated in the name of racial purity, i.e., he saw the destruction of South Vietnamese rural life as no different in kind from the repression of African-American hopes and aspirations. Instead of the court and the rope, though, now the rifle and napalm were being used. In other words, we can get all touchy-feely about the "I Have a Dream" speech and completely ignore King's strident opposition to American imperialism, to the war in Vietnam, and to the continued obfuscations and prevarications of the Johnson Administration. He also thought it horrible that, disproportionately to the rest of the population, children of poor and working class families were being sent to Vietnam to uphold a system that continued to repress them at home (he grieved over the role African-American soldiers, marines, and sailors played in Vietnam). This was no less exploitative than the use of slaves managing slaves on plantations in the ante-bellum south, in his eyes.
I think we do King's legacy and memory an injustice whenever we repeat "the content of one's character". For King, this was one speech on one day, to mark one point in a struggle that continued throughout his life. Our nation is so much poorer today because we have lost the memory of the Martin King who was organizing a mass protest in Washington on behalf of the poor - a protest that might or might not have come off had he lived. We are poorer today because we hear the word of King's dream, without thinking through why he dreamed it.
We are poorer today because King has become tame, a mild-mannered black Baptist preacher of love and peace, rather than a passionate, committed fighter against injustice in whatever form it appeared. Until we reclaim the Martin Luther King, Jr. who fought as hard against the war in Vietnam, who denounced American war crimes in southeast Asia as vehemently as he did American domestic crimes in southeast Alabama, we have not yet begun to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.