On August 22, 2011, the Martin Luther King Memorial opened to the public. The first African American to be honored with a memorial on the Mall, and only the fourth non-President, King’s memorial took decades of planning and fundraising. It stands, or perhaps better stated purports to stand, for King’s dedication to social justice and to nonviolent activism.
About a week after the opening, I got into an argument with Cornel West about King, Obama, and the memorial. He’d written an New York Times op-ed arguing that if King were still alive he wouldn’t want a monument, he’d want a revolution. West’s op-ed reflected a response to a number of troubling tendencies in contemporary American political life that include increased conservatism, an increased willingness to blame our circumstances on the poor, and a bankrupt political imagination generally bereft of the type of ideas and vision required to drag America kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.
But I believed his response was problematic. I told him simply, “King is dead.”
This is a hard pill to swallow. Even now you can still find hallowed pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. in black homes across the country. He and to a lesser extent Malcolm X have become standards to which black leaders are compared. And found wanting.[foot]1 A similar dynamic happens in other fields of endeavor. Twenty years ago in the pages of Race Matters, West criticized then modern day black intellectuals—for shabby scholarship (and clothing), comparing them to giants like WEB Dubois. Hip-hop now has enough history behind it that we see some of the same tendencies. My middle-aged peers view the late eighties/early nineties as hip-hop’s golden age. Back then? We had Public Enemy, KRS-One, and X-Clan. Now? Lil Wayne, Drake, and Young Jeezy. Even black athletes who are paid to exhibit excellence on the playing field are held up to a golden age standard. Forty years ago we had Jim Brown, Curt Flood, and Bill Russell, athletes known for taking radical political stances.[/foot]?
In his brief response to me, West referred to Sankofa, a West African term often symbolized by a bird whose head is turned backwards so as to reach for an egg on its back. Sankofa encapsulates the idea of going back in history for that which is good in order to progress. Why shouldn’t we use our history to go forward? If we forget our history aren’t we condemned to repeat it? The logic here is plain. Past is prologue. Our contemporary condition is caused by our lack of leadership. We don’t have a political movement because we don’t have quality political leaders, we don’t have quality artists, we don’t have quality intellectuals.
To quote the late Dr. Khallid Muhammad, sampled in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” “We’ve lost our religion, our culture, our god, and many of us by the way we act, we’ve even lost our minds.”
Now I don’t have a thing against history. Far from it. I routinely draw from my understanding of the Great Depression in talking about our current political circumstances. When I suggest Obama should be much more aggressive in dealing with the current economic crisis I draw from my understanding of the New Deal and the safety net it created, as flawed as it was. And even though I don’t believe that the current incarceration crisis represents “the new Jim Crow” as Michelle Alexander notes, in understanding the effects of incarceration on black communities I am reminded of the way the penal system was used in the Jim Crow Era.
But there are ways to use history, and ways to use history.
In the spirit of Sankofa we often freeze our leaders and our movements. We freeze King in one of two poses. The first pose is standing in front of the Lincoln Monument delivering his famous I Have a Dream speech in front of a crowd of well over two hundred thousand. The second pose is prone, as Ralph Abernathy holds King as he delivers his last breath.
We treat the Civil Rights Movement in much the same way. Freezing it in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in Selma, Alabama, or in The March on Washington.[foot]?Although I’m focusing here on the Civil Rights Movement I can make a somewhat similar claim with the Black Power Movement.[/foot]
History is a swirling cauldron of events, actions, and bodies, with clear outcomes but fuzzy and chaotic processes. With the benefit of hindsight of course we know what’s going to happen. And knowing what’s going to happen allows us to make logical, linear links. I say more about the Montgomery Bus Boycott below but we can draw a straight line between it, and the sit-ins, and the Civil Rights Act of 1963. And because of the specific way we’re taught about these events we tend to think of leaders like King as having extremely clear vision and as having almost superhuman powers in directing people and in shaping events. But although King did prove prophetic, the reality was he could no more see the future when he was in the middle of organizing than we can see the future now. He knew what he wanted, he knew what the world he wanted to see would look like. But he didn’t know what would happen. And more importantly he didn’t really know how he’d get there.
I suggest we take the historical enterprise almost as serious as scholars do. But I don’t suggest this to make more history PhDs. Historians understand that history itself is far more complicated than the stories we often create in its name. Rather I suggest this approach because of its political benefits. It better helps us understand the often messy nature of political change.
To the extent then that people like King become important for our current purposes, they should only become important as living beings rather than as frozen ones stuck in the middle of making (what appear to be) perfect decisions, decisions we already know the consequences of because we’re able to look backwards. We should strive to bring figures like King to life, which means by definition emphasizing their imperfections as well as their shifting positions.
This should move us away from discussions about what King would have wanted. King was 26 years old when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. He was only 39 years old when he was assassinated. Any attempt to talk about what King would have wanted now ignores two central points. King changed a great deal in a short thirteen years. He moved from believing that Jim Crow racial discrimination was the sole form of discrimination holding Americans back, to believing that America’s economic system was at least as brutal as Jim Crow was—remember, his last march was a Poor People’s March. Who is to say how much more King would have changed over the next 45 years? It is very possible he would’ve wanted what we think we want. But it’s also very possible he could have changed in some significant ways—moving away from rather than deeper into progressive stances. The second point is related. If our goal is the type of political mobilization sustains itself, then we should be more focused on what we want than what we believe King might want.
Unfreezing history gives us the powerful option of moving away from “great men” like King in general. History’s prime movers are not “great men”. The change we want to see rarely comes because some charismatic individual created change from on high, coming down from the mountaintop to bring mana to the masses. Rather history’s prime movers are often regular people. Some of these regular people were powerful speakers, easily coming up with soundbites that take control of our imaginations. But many of them weren’t. Even when charismatic individuals come to the fore, they often are able to do so because of the work people have done before and around them to make their moment possible.
Understanding this expands our contemporary imagination, and in effect unfreezes our present. I want to go back for a minute to Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. She does a good job of accounting the ways contemporary criminal justice policy criminalizes some black populations. And this starts from the way police officers surveil black communities and goes all the way through to the sentencing process ending in the most egregious cases in problematic death row cases. Titling the book and the phenomenon “the new jim crow” gives people who may not think about the racism of the modern criminal justice system an easy way to think about it. It enables us to neatly draw a straight line from Emmett Till (murdered for committing the crime of whistling at a white woman) to a black drug dealer convicted for selling small amounts of crack cocaine. It allows us to connect the processes police often use to control and surveil black citizens to the processes police used to control black citizens over 50 years ago. And, so the logic goes, it should lead us to easily mobilize citizens against it.
The reality though is that the current criminal justice system while deeply racist is not the new Jim Crow. The conditions that create the modern police state are very different than the conditions that created Jim Crow. Our police forces are far more integrated than they once were, and while the jails are increasingly flooded with black men, these black men come from very specific class backgrounds. These conditions require new tactics, new strategies, new ways of thinking, ways that shouldn’t be stuck fifty years in the past.
So freezing both King and the Civil Rights Movement demobilizes black communities by creating a historically inaccurate perfect standard, a perfect standard they cannot possibly hope to meet, a perfect standard the people they are being compared to themselves didn’t meet. Going too often to the past freezes our tactics, the strategies, freezes the very language we use to articulate our problem.
We’re so busy looking backwards under these circumstances we cannot effectively move forward.
But again I’m not suggesting we discard the historical enterprise totally.
One day, seamstress Rosa Parks was tired. She’d spent a long hard day working and wanted nothing more than to be able to rest her feet. Sitting near the front of the bus she was asked to move to the back by a white patron. Now the white patron was within his legal rights to do so because the buses Montgomery Alabama were segregated. Rosa decided she didn’t want to move to the back of the bus, because she was tired. So she refused. Which put the white patrons of the bus and the white bus driver in a tizzy. They promptly stopped the bus, and had Rosa Parks arrested. When Rosa Parks was arrested, a group of black leaders, helmed by Martin Luther King Jr, decided to organize the black community for Rosa Parks specifically, and against segregation in general. They had a meeting to decide what to do, and they made the general decision to boycott the buses. The boycott was a resounding success, leading to the desegregation of the buses and inevitably leading to the death of Jim Crow. As a result of his success in Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr worked to create a larger movement throughout the South, one that changed history.
This is the quick story most of us grow up with, the story most of us take to our graves. Note the role of black leaders here. Although many think of Rosa Parks as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement—indeed she is both the only woman and the only non-official to ever lie in state at the nation’s capital—her role here was limited to being the tired seamstress who refused to relinquish her seat. Martin Luther King Jr role in organizing and sustaining the boycott through his charismatic leadership was much more important. Although there had to have been some differences of opinion leading up to, during, and after the boycott, these differences are pretty much written out of the story. Indeed many of us don’t even know how long the boycott actually was. And finally, given the success of King in organizing the boycott, it is easy to connect his decisions here to the larger decision to take the movement outside of Montgomery, using the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (note the name!) as the vehicle.
Now every “quick” story is going to miss some details, otherwise it wouldn’t be very quick. But the missed details in this case all work to enhance the general idea that black progress is purely a function of black leadership. Black leadership works instantly and courageously. Black leadership galvanizes the community. Black leadership removes doubts. Black leadership organizes and directs capacity. Black leadership is predominantly male.
But the story is much more complicated. Rosa Parks was an old school political organizer, trained at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, a center devoted to training grassroots organizers. Parks worked for the NAACP and was a member of the Women’s Political Council, an organization of black women devoted to the dual issues of racial justice and gender equality. She made a tactical decision not to get up rather than a decision born of fatigue. Rosa wasn’t the first woman to get arrested for refusing to give up her seat, but people felt that only Parks had the requisite class background required to get people to rally around her.
According to the first reading, until Martin Luther King jr. came along black people had simply laid down, unwilling to fight Jim Crow racism. Martin Luther King Jr noted as much when he congratulated black Montgomerians for finally “waking up”. Just as Rosa Parks had no political history at all, and simply got up when she couldn’t stand it anymore, blacks in Montgomery also had no political history, finally waking up after it had passed some pre-determined boiling point.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Even at the height of Jim Crow terrorism, blacks in Montgomery and elsewhere had been doing critical organizing work. Jim Crow racists would have black people believing Jim Crow was the natural state of things, that black people were genetically and culturally inferior to whites, that whites knew what was best for them. Blacks organized in a variety of institutions, often secretly, to get black men and women to understand that their position was driven by racism rather than by inferiority. Further, through the Women’s Political Council and other organizations blacks contested Jim Crow racism in a number of ways decades before the movement began.
We think the decision to boycott was simple. It wasn’t. There were 35,000 blacks in Montgomery that had to be contacted within days. Although in today’s climate we might conceivably reach that many people within an hour through Twitter, getting to all those people required a tremendous degree of coordination. More importantly it required a tremendous degree of negotiation. A boycott like that doesn’t occur without thinking about details—like how to get people who relied on the bus back and forth, how to punish black people who were caught riding the bus, how to monitor the effect of the boycott, etc. It also doesn’t occur without dealing with the different interests black people had. Black women were the most likely victims of Jim Crow buses, but they also relied on the bus the most. For people who didn’t really need the bus, boycotting wasn’t a big deal. All of these decisions had to garner the consent of the people engaging in the boycott.
Martin Luther King Jr was an important figure of the boycott. But on three separate occasions—at the outset when organizers were looking for places to meet, after the boycott was a day long and some thought that it should stop, and at the end when people wanted to take the energy from the boycott and use it in other places—King expressed reluctance to continue. In fact on two occasions he had to actually be browbeaten into continuing. He and other “black leaders” had significant doubts about the movement, about whether it would succeed, about whether they’d chosen the right tactics.
We think the boycott was the final straw. At the time Martin Luther King Jr and others believed that ending Jim Crow segregation would not only end racial discrimination, it would transform Montgomery and later on the Deep South and the rest of the country, into a far more perfect union. It brought us closer…but ending Jim Crow segregation didn’t end the significant wealth disparities between the rich and the poor. It didn’t end the pervasive sexism rampant in communities throughout America. It didn’t end the growth of the prison industrial complex. The specific battle they fought did end. But the victories there revealed other disparities.
Finally, given how much we routinely deploy marches, and boycotts, we at least appear to believe the tactics themselves still have weight, are still effective in not only galvanizing communities but in generating at least some political change. When the reality is that at the time of their deployment, marches and boycotts were extremely radical events. King and other civil rights leaders were in effect put in charge of the March on Washington by officials in Washington D.C. because they feared its radical potential (and given the original plan—to nonviolently take over the US Senate and House of Representatives—they may have had a point!). Now, marches and boycotts are with critical exceptions, symbolic shadows of their former selves.
As should be obvious from my use of Rosa Parks, I do believe history has a valuable role to play in our contemporary political work. But as should be clear from my example there is a way to use history that helps us understand how regular people after fighting and fighting and fighting some more came to understand themselves as political actors rather than victims…and there is a way to use history that does nothing other than valorize people who no longer need validation because they are no longer here. A way to use history that is incredibly empowering, and a way to use history that is incredibly demobilizing. West isn’t the first person to use King and the civil rights movement in this manner. He won’t be the last. But for those truly interested in building a democratic black political movement, we need to stop trying to resuscitate King and other leaders like him. We need to let them rest in peace.