Monday, January 17, 2011

Can We Be America - Some Thoughts Inspired By The Life And Words Of Martin Luther King

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath --
America will be!
-Langston Hughes
It is with both sadness and something like awe that I read through King's 1967 speech, "A Time to Break Silence". Delivered at New York's historic Riverside Church, it was more than just a statement against the wars in Vietnam. It was a thorough critique of American life, foreign and domestic. As in so much else, King cut through the illusion that the war, like segregation, was the illness. In this speech, he not only pleaded to end the wars. He also talked about America being America. Like his 1963 speech to the March on Washington, he proclaimed a vision for the United States that was in deepest accord with our most cherished values; unlike that speech, he offered no vision of hope or promise in the ringing tones of a vision of eschatological peace. On the contrary, he indicted the United States for betraying that vision, wondering whether we were not, perhaps, demonstrating symptoms of national decline, a failure not just of nerve, but of those qualities that would, indeed, make us a great nation, not just a great power.

Unlike the speech in Washington four years previous, King was not playing to our best sense of ourselves. He was, rather, holding a mirror before a nation already weary from social strife, yet destined for years more of it and declaring that, without justice, there can be no peace; that the peace we sought in Vietnam was inextricably linked to social justice at home; that the justice of which he spoke, and for which he had worked for over a decade required more than adjusting a few laws and changing a few minds. Repeatedly, at the end of the speech, King stated that the two goals for which he worked, the America he wished to see, could only come about through revolution.

Not just some "change of heart", although that was certainly part of it. The revolution to which he referred was that same revolution he spoke of seeing across the Third World, revolutions to which the United States seemed institutionally and inherently opposed. To live out its highest values, to "be America" as Hughes said we might yet be, America needed to be on the side of these revolutions, support them actively and purposefully. Only then could we, in the words of his 1963 speech, live out our creed that all people are created equal.

In the years since his murder, King's legacy as a public figure was contested space. The prophet of a necessary revolution became the preacher of peace. We are inundated with the sounds of his 1963 Washington speech - a marvelous piece of American oratory, to be sure! - but without the context of his later speeches and work, including a "Poor People's March" he was planning as he was gunned down in Memphis, a year to the day after delivering his speech on the wars in Vietnam, leaves one with the impression that King was a sober liberal. That image, imposed pretty early on, is part of the reason for the remarkable veneration among many young African-Americans, of Malcolm X, his alleged rival until Malcolm had his own final confrontation with a gun. The differences between the two men, the subject of James Cone's remarkable work of social and ideological detective work, Malcolm, Martin, and America, were far less than the public, and perhaps even they, imagined. Yet, it was the appropriation of the peace-loving, non-violence-preaching King by white liberals that rendered so much of King's actual work unintelligible, silenced a forceful, revolutionary agitator in favor of an image that was uncomfortably close to the Establishment's house negro.

In the early 1970's, radical black theologian William R. Jones, author of Is God a White Racist?, gave a lecture at Wesley Theological Seminary at its annual celebration of King. The contested legacy of King was of some import at Wesley at the time. The academic dean, Phil Wogaman, had gone to Alabama and marched with King; he had been attacked by the police at the Benjamin Pettus Bridge. His mentor at the theological school at Boston University had been King's as well, L. Harold DeWolfe (whom Wesley stole from Boston to be its first academic dean in 1965; DeWolfe dragged along several BU alumni, including Wogaman and Jim Logan and, later, William "Bobby" McLain). In that speech, Jones declared that the contested legacy of King was, in large part, a matter for whites. Blacks had no need, and certainly no desire, to take their cues on whom they should venerate as leaders from whites.

Jones' speech was met with consternation, to say the least. He was hardly dismissing King's work. Rather, he was stating, quite boldly, that the arguments over who King "really" was were irrelevant to the question of "leadership" among African-Americans. They were quite capable of understanding who King was and what he did. The imposition of a part of King's legacy - that peaceful preacher of non-violence and racial coexistence - stripped away not only the revolutionary King. It robbed King's message of its historic depth because the onus, at least in the whitewashed (pun intended) version being sold after his death, was upon the African-American community to meet the social and psychological needs of whites, rather than understanding desegregation as part of a much larger revolution of social and cultural and political values that would fulfill the promise, long ago stated succinctly by Langston Hughes, that, America might yet be America for all its people.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More