Last week, the nation celebrated Martin Luther King jr. Day. Like most historical figures with a significant paper trail, you can find several different Kings based on your predispotions. For example, here’s textual evidence for a black conservative King.
The constructive program ahead must include a vigorous attempt to improve the Negro’s personal standards. It must be reiterated that the standards of the Negro as a group lag behind not because of an inherent inferiority, but because of the fact that segregation does exist….Yet Negroes must be honest enough to admit that our standards do often fall short….Our crime rate is far too high. Our level of cleanliness is frequently far too low. Too often those of us in the middle class live above our means, spend money on nonessentials and frivolities, and fail to give to serious causes, organizations, and educational institutions that so desperately need funds. [foot] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. 1991. A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper Press. p. 489[/foot]
Even if I’d pulled the entire passage, in which King places most of the blame for this reality on racism, it isn’t hard to imagine someone like a Clarence Thomas or perhaps Thomas Sowell or even a mid-career Glenn Loury making this argument. According to this argument, black personal responsibility should trump any supposed structural reality.
For scholars like Cornel West and Eddie Glaude, focused as they are on the power of the black church the most important King is arguably the Christian King.
Only God is able. It is faith in him that we must rediscover. With this faith we can transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy and bring new light into the dark caverns of pessimism. Is someone here moving toward the twilight of life and fearful of that which we call death? Why be afraid? God is able. Is someone here on the brink of despair because of the death of a loved one, the breaking of a marriage, or the waywardness of a child? Why despair? God is able to give you the power to endure that which cannot be changed. Is someone here anxious because of bad health? Why be anxious? Come what may, God is able. [foot] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. 1991. A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper Press. p. 508[/foot]
Of course we can’t talk about King’s politics without talking about his support for integration.
The word segregation represents a system that is prohibitive; it denies the Negro equal access to schools, parks, restaurants, libraries, and the like. Desegregation is eliminative and negative, for it simply removes these legal and social prohibitions. Integration is creative, and is therefore more profound and far-reaching than desegregation. Integration is the positive acceptance of desegregation and the welcomed participation of Negroes into the total range of human activities. Integration is genuine intergroup, interpersonal doing. Desegregation then, rightly, is only a short-range goal. Integration is the ultimate goal of our national community. [foot] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. 1991. A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper Press. p. 118[/foot]
However post-1965 we see evidence of King’s support for black nationalism in the form of black power as well.
…Black Power, in its broad and positive meaning, is a call to lack people to amass the political and economic strength to achieve their legitimate goals. No one can deny that the Negro is in dire need of this kind of legitimate power. Indeed, one of the great problems that the Negro confronts is his lack of power. From the old plantations of the South to the newer ghettos of the North, the Negro has been confined to a life of voicelessness and powerlessness. Stripped of the right to make decisions concerning his life and destiny, he has been subject to the authoritarian and sometimes whimsical decisions of the white power structure. The plantation and the ghetto were created by those who had power both to confine those who had no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. The problem of transforming the ghetto is, therefore, a problem of power–a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to preserving the status quo. [foot] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. 1991. A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper Press. p. 577[/foot]
Now the integration/nationalism dichotomy is only one ideological axis of concern. Put another way, it’s possible to be a black integrationist communist, just as it is possible to be a black nationalist socialist. It’s pretty easy to take King’s latter ideas on the economy to cement his status as a radical.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look at thousands of working people displaced from their jobs with reduced incomes as a result of automation while the profits of the employers remain intact, and say: “This is not just.” It will look across the oceans and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically damaged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.[foot] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. 1991. A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper Press. pp. 630, 631[/foot]
This exercise is far from systematic. But going through his speeches, essays, interviews, and books one can find at least five different tendencies. But the tendency scholars, activists, pundits, politicians, and regular everyday folk, tend to focus on says a lot more about them than it does about him. More specifically we can pretty much predict the King one tends to focus on by his/her personal politics.
With that said, which one stands out to me?
If I had to choose between one of the Kings above, I’d choose the radical King. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that King never, as far as I’m aware of, expressed a desire that his fraternity (Alpha Phi Alpha) be integrated. But I think there’s a King no one’s really wrestled with. The institutional King.
…corrective legislation requires organization to bring it to life. Laws only declare rights; they do not deliver them. The oppressed must take hold of laws and transform them into effective mandates. Hence the absence of powerful organization has limited the degree of application and the extent of practical success.
We made easy gains and we built the kind of organizations that expect easy victories, and rest upon them. It may seem curious to speak of easy victories when some have suffered and sacrificed so much. Yet in candor and self-criticism it is necessary to acknowledge that the torturous job of organizing solidly and simultaneously in thousands of places was not a feature of our work. This is as true for the older civil rights organizations as for the newer ones…
Many civil rights organizations were born as specialists in agitation and dramatic projects; they attracted massive sympathy and support; but they did not assemble and unify the support for new stages of struggle. The effect on their allies reflected their basic practices. Support waxed and waned, and people became conditioned to action in crises but inaction from day to day. We unconsciously patterned a crisis policy and program, and summoned support not for daily commitment but for explosive events alone. [foot] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. 1991. A Testament of Hope : The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper Press. p. 612[/foot]
Now I think there are very real problems with focusing on an individual like King to the exclusion of people like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, Amzie Moore, and Claudette Colvin (not to mention northern activists like Grace and James Boggs, and Albert Cleage). But to the extent we peel one King off, is this one we needed to really examine.