Monday, January 16, 2012

Musings On The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s Monday, the 16th of January, 2012. In the United States that means we recognize the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr. As time passes by the man fades and myth replaces him. I always find this day fraught because in the effort to honor and recognize this exceptional leader and philosopher we have made him so much less than what he was.

If we think about the man at all, if we attempt to reconstruct his sacrifice, it becomes a mangled and flattened  tale about a two dimensional man. The complexities and contradictions of the man are buried with his bones. We forget the humanity. We forget the foibles. We forget the crazy bravery. We forget the failures and the disappointments.

This was an African American of the deep south who found his philosophy in India via New England. This was a preacher of an orthodox, hell-fire and damnation, evangelical church who, most likely, was in his own faith, a Unitarian-Universalist. This was the outstanding moral leader and moral compass of the nation who could not keep faith with his wife.

In this time, when transnational corporate capitalism runs amok, that we miss this visionary man. In his last days King was moving beyond civil rights for the narrowly defined cohort of African Americans, and toward the bigger picture of the depredations of poverty. Could King have found a way to convince the poor rural rednecks of the common cause they shared with the black neighbors that they despised? Could have King found a new Christian understanding that overcame the over-arching, toxic, politics of class and race?

I always wonder what would happen if a true visionary Christian, a true follower of Jesus, was able to capture the national imagination now. Could such a person truly break though the chatter, the fluff and nonsense, the twenty four hour news cycle? Could such a person survive the scrutiny of our celebrity culture? Could they survive the inevitable swift-boating, the calumny of opposition research and fabrication?

In his own time Dr. King had to defect the most vile of accusations. He had to endure all kinds of vituperative attacks. He was accused of being a radical, a trouble maker, a Communist, a saboteur.  On the home front, King was accused in being too accommodationist, too cautious, too much the Uncle Tom. Black Nationalist like Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver had not one good thing to say about the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

For all of his life King was seen by White America as pushing too hard, too fast; just the opposite of his black peers. Only the very wise, the very politically astute knew better, knew that MLK was more safety valve than stoker of the fire. It took King’s death for the rest of the US to get wise to the tsunami of rage that MLK held back. When King died, the inner cities of the United States burned. It was only with his assassination that the greater nation truly understand how much it would miss King’s preaching of Christian forbearance.

I cannot think of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. without thinking of his spiritual and political heirs Occupy Wall Street. Both are grounded in the strategies and tactics of non violence. Both faced being slandered and libeled by their political opponents. Both have had to come up with a response to the application of police power to their movements. Both have had to separate themselves from the fringe political provocateurs that hung around the periphery of their movements without betraying their inclusiveness. Both face a steep learning curve as the political, economic establishment, and the police power that enforce its whims, respond to challenge, and adapt to the tactics of a liberation movement. OWS does have an advantage in that it can learn from King's successes and failures to craft the new liberation movement for these new times.

To do this the people who give OWS its theoretical heft need to deal with the historical reality of Dr. King and his movement. They have to understand the uphill battle he faced, not from the bigoted minority of the south, but from the mostly indifferent to hostile majority of the entire nation. They need to understand true change is difficult at best, and damn near impossible most times. Opposition to change is like a brick wall, very hard to break down. King spend his whole adult life attempting to punch just a small hole in that brick wall. It was a long, tiring process that garnered little praise, and even less affection.

It is a good thing that we do celebrate the life of Dr. King. It is important that we reflect on the reality of his works and his cause. It is best that we forget the myth that we have been handed and instead remember the true parameters of Dr. King’s liberation struggle. Much of his work is left undone. Much of his work awaits our further action. Can recommit ourselves to the great undertaking of becoming a more human, more humane nation; to become a more perfect union? We have that option; will we avail of it? Or we continue to wallow in the libertarian delusion that there is no we, no common cause, that we are nothing but atomized individuals with no higher aspirations then self-gratification? Do we follow the spiritual lessons of Jesus, Ghandi, the Buddah, and others or do we wallow in the selfishness of Galt? There is a choice between compassion and casual cruelty; that is the final lesson of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I hope we, as a nation, learn it before it is too late.
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