I got into a brief argument with Cornel West in Seattle over Labor Day Weekend, over his argument that MLK would want a revolution rather than a memorial. I made two points:
The first is that King is dead. He was assassinated 44 years ago. And if he were NOT assassinated, if by perchance he lived long enough to see this day, it isn't quite clear what he would say, what he would want. It's very possible he'd still be calling for a revolution of values, one that would transform the way we respond to poverty, the way we respond to developing nations (here I'm thinking of his critique against the Vietnam War). But we don't know. He isn't here to speak for himself. And while we do have his words and his speeches, those are words and speeches from a very different time. Every time we blithely turn to the past without recognizing the fundamental differences between "then" and "now", every time we we rip words, phrases, speeches, out of their context, placing them within another without consideration, we commit a kind of falsehood. A falsehood that in this particular case fits some of our politics but a falsehood nonetheless. We can use the past to make sense of the present, but more often we "cherry pick", choosing particular moments that fit our understandings of how the world should work. I see this dynamic in most attempts to use King politically.
Furthermore, in choosing King we don't choose the King that had to be browbeaten into getting involved in what ended up being the Montgomery Bus Boycott. We don't choose the King that had to be browbeaten to continue the movement after victory was won. We choose King at the height of his oratorical powers. Not quite understanding how much we could learn if we came to recognize King's startling imperfections. There is a way to use King, and a way to use the past in general that helps us politically and is historically appropriate. We more often than not, turn our backs on that way.
The second point.
In this particular moment of rampant inequality, and government breakdown, it seems to me that we can make a very simple argument as to why Obama is neglecting his responsibility in more stridently calling for a more just world. One that doesn't necessitate going backwards, but instead one that looks at the present with open eyes and open heart. Every time we turn to King–a narrow King at that–we say we lack the imagination, the capacity to work with those around us in THIS moment. We say that the only thing we know how to do is look backwards. We say that the only thing that will move black people and the populations we care about are calls to glory.
And this further reduces our ability to make sense of the present, our ability to politically organize citizens.
Of course West didn't agree with me. Few do.
Doesn't mean I'm wrong.