Dr. King was killed forty years ago last week. Of course, this "anniversary" was thoroughly covered, commented upon, and at the center of the public's consciousness for an obligatory few days of national remembrance, reflection, and celebrating of how far America has come (or perhaps not) towards resolving our national dilemma of racial inequality and white supremacy--a dilemma that is simultaneously both a national obsession and character flaw that resident Negress in the Bush regime, Condi Rice, quite surprisingly and incisively described as a "birth defect at America's founding." At moments such as these, I experience a bit of "two-ness." On one hand I am cynical and suspicious of America's willingness to deify King while also being quite proud of his heroism, patriotism, courage, and human imperfections. Yes, his imperfections, imperfections which made King all the more human to me, and perhaps to others of the post-Civil Rights generation, a cohort born a bit removed from the immediate glare of King, "The Movement," and those tumultuous 1960s.
I have asked myself repeatedly, which King do we celebrate? Do we celebrate the optimistic humanist who believed in the hopeful possibility of America's redemption? Or do we celebrate the King that criticized the Vietnam War? The man who moved the black freedom struggle Northward and became increasingly convinced of white society's inability to move past its racism? Do we celebrate a man that saw the struggle against poverty and human indignity as a cornerstone and prerequisite for justice, a justice for all people everywhere? I know the answer, as I suspect you do as well, but the question, despite toying with triteness, remains relevant, and is perhaps made more so, because of the simplicity of the question.
America is "blessed" with the ability to package any fact, event, or situation to fit its national needs. For example, because nationhood is about selective acts of remembrance and forgetting, America can reimagine its founding as untainted by the complexities of classism, racism, or sexism. Alternatively, one can craft a story in which these inconveniences are mere imperfections to be struggled against and that the American creed has been perfected precisely because of the malleability of our society and politics, a "consensus liberalism," that can account for all locations on the political spectrum and that can heal all wounds.
America, through the same process of remembering and forgetting, can remake its heroes and its struggles. We cannot forget that Dr. King, at the time of his death was one of the most unpopular people in the country, not a national hero, but rather a man reviled and scorned. Upon his death, and in the decades since, Dr. King has been transformed into an icon, a God among men, and a symbol of the best which America has to offer.
Accordingly, the radicalism of Dr. King's vision has been removed. King has been so thoroughly white-washed that the Right can disingenuously deploy King's name to both fight affirmative action, as well as to counter the efforts of ethically and fair minded Americans to correct a disadvantageous racial order; corporations can use Dr. King to sell McDonald's fast food, Apple Computers, and automobiles; and King's message is an antidote, a happy pill of sorts with the power to make everyone feel good about how far we have come:
Of course, as a respectable Negro, and as someone working to be a better "race man," I miss the latter Dr. King, not because his earlier work wasn't relevant or radical (I and others like me are the direct descendants of his dream and owe a debt that can never be repaid) but because his radical critique of power, militarism, and a State which fails its citizens, remains frighteningly relevant in 2008.
Today, we are bogged down in a civil war in Iraq that has claimed thousands of American dead, tens of thousands wounded, orders of magnitude more Iraqis killed, and which shows precious few signs of being resolved in the near-term. We have an administration which continues to lie about the Iraq War, its costs in both financial and human terms, and a political establishment that seems unwilling to confront the dire impact of the Iraq misadventure on America's social, economic, and political stability. The Iraq War has damaged the U.S. military to such a degree that generals, soldiers, and veterans are speaking out in protest.
Sadly, the Iraq War is a tar baby that can we can extricate ourselves from, much like the British did from the U.S. during the 18th and 19th centuries, an action which preserved British dominance and power, if we only had the political will. As he opposed the Vietnam War, Dr. King's vision would certainly condemn the madness of our misguided Middle East adventure(s). More troubling to me as a proud American (and that is one of the complexities of red, yellow, black and brown folk's relationship to this country isn't it? this pride and loyalty?), is how this righteous critique would be rejected as being treasonous:
Or as the sentiments of America haters:
Even relative hawks like myself, citizens that are not afraid of using both "soft" and "hard" power in the pursuit of America's preeminence in the World--which is a nicer way of saying the carrot and the stick, would likely be marked as traitors to the cause.
Certainly, the radical King, as we have seen in the attacks on Obama's patriotism and loyalty, would be greeted with condemnation by the Right and their (often manipulated) supporters in red-state America. As a function of "symbolic racism" blacks are always suspect as traitors, as likely "bad citizens," and our loyalty is questioned despite our repeated response to America's call to arms:
Or our heroism:
Or our sacrifice:
Here, and most relevant in this moment, is that the most sickening part of the Wright-Obama debacle is how Obama and Wright can be labeled as disloyal by the Right, when the shrill elite of the Conservative wing have either never served, had other things to do, were AWOL, or were otherwise far from the combat that they dared accuse others of either exaggerating or dissembling about. The base hypocrisy of these "chicken-hawks," and the unwillingness of the public to hold them accountable as they led, and continue to lead America down a path which leaves us weaker rather than stronger, is ominous for what is portends about the health of our civic culture.
In my reflections on Dr. King and his legacy, I close with the following: What is patriotism? What is "black patriotism?" Is there such a thing? Hell, is there such a thing as "white patriotism?" What does patriotism mean at present? And will we ever have a political space for the type of radical critique which Dr. King offered?
And yes, this most radical King is the one I miss the most...