[For this year’s MLK Day series, starting as always with my annual post on remembering the full King, I wanted to return to that source, focusing on a few under-remembered moments from King’s tragically brief but strikingly full activist life. Leading up to a special weekend post on a few of King’s 21st century heirs!]
On the limits to how we currently remember King, and how to get beyond them.
It probably puts me at significant risk of losing my AmericanStudies Card to say this—and you have no idea how hard it is to get a second one of those if you lose the first—but I think the “I Have a Dream” speech is kind of overrated. I’m sort of saying that for effect, since I don’t really mean that the speech itself isn’t as eloquent and powerful and pitch-perfect in every way as the narrative goes—it most definitely is, and while that’s true enough if you read the words, it becomes infinitely more true when you see video and thus hear audio of the speech and moment. But what is overrated, I think, is the weight that has been placed on the speech, the cultural work that it has been asked to do. Partly that has to do with contemporary politics, and especially with those voices who have tried to argue that King’s “content of their character” rather than “color of their skin” distinction means that he would oppose any and all forms of identity politics or affirmative action or the like; such readings tend to forget that King was speaking in that culminating section of the speech about what he dreams might happen “one day”—if, among other things, we give all racial groups the same treatment and opportunities—rather than what he thought was possible in America in the present.
But the more significant overemphasis on the speech, I would argue, has occurred in the process by which it (and not even all of it, so much as just those final images of “one day”) has been made to symbolize all of—or at least represent in miniature—King’s philosophies and ideas and arguments. There’s no question that the speech’s liberal univeralism, its embrace (if in that hoped-for way) of an equality that knows no racial identifications, was a central thread within King’s work; and, perhaps more tellingly, was the thread by which he could most clearly be defined in opposition to a more stridently and wholly Black Nationalist voice like Malcolm X’s. Yet the simple and crucial fact is that King’s rich and complex perspective and philosophy, as they existed throughout his life but especially as they developed over the decade and a half between his real emergence onto the national scene with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and his assassination in 1968, contained a number of similarly central and crucial threads. There were for example his radical perspectives on class, wealth, and the focuses of government spending, a set of arguments which culminated in the last years of his life in both the “Poor People’s Campaign” and in increasingly vocal critiques of the military-industrial complex; and his strong belief not only in nonviolent resistance (as informed by figures as diverse as Thoreau and Gandhi) but also in pacifism in every sense, which likewise developed into his very public opposition to the Vietnam Year in his final years. While both of those perspectives were certainly not focused on one racial identity or community, neither were they broadly safe or moderate stances; indeed, they symbolized direct connections to some of the most radical social movements and philosophies of the era.
To my mind, though, the most significant undernarrated thread—and perhaps the most central one in King’s perspective period—has to be his absolutely clear belief in the need to oppose racial segregation and discrimination, of every kind, in every way, as soon and as thoroughly as possible. Again, the contrast to Malcolm has tended to make King out to be the more patient or cautious voice, but I defy anyone to read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—the short piece that King wrote in April 1963 to a group of white Southern clergyman, while he was serving a brief jail sentence for his protest activities—and come away thinking that either patience or caution are in the top twenty adjectives that best describe the man and his beliefs. King would later expand the letter into a book, Why We Can’t Wait, the very title of which makes the urgency of his arguments more explicit still; but when it comes to raw passion and power, I don’t think any American text can top the “Letter” itself. Not raw in the sense of ineloquent—I tend to imagine that King’s first words, at the age of 1 or whenever, were probably more eloquent than any I’ll ever speak—but raw as in their absolute rejection, in the letter’s opening sentence, of his audience’s description of his protest activities as “unwise and untimely.” And raw as well in the razor sharp turn in tone in the two sentences that comprise one of the letter’s closing paragraphs: “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”
I guess what it boils down to for me is this: to remember King for one section of “I Have a Dream” is like remembering Shakespeare for the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy in Hamlet. Yeah, that’s a great bit, but what about the humor? The ghost? The political plotting and play within the play? The twenty-seven other great speeches? And then there’s, y’know, all those other pretty good, and very distinct, plays. And some poetry that wasn’t bad either. It’s about time we remembered the whole King, and thus got a bit closer to the real King and what he can really help us see about our national history, identity, and future. Next MLK history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other MLK histories or contexts you’d highlight?