It is generally acknowledged that our society suffers from a certain historical amnesia in general, but especially on national holidays. In the instance of Martin Luther King Day, many implore the public to look beyond his calls for “racial harmony” and non-violence, and to not characterize the Black Freedom struggle that he participated in as a single person endeavor instead of a group-centered imperative. It is after this call that we then find very well written pieces which either incorporate the everyday people and local agents that heroically and bravely helped the nation confront its undemocratic legacy of exclusion and racial violence, or remind us of King’s important pivot towards economic justice and inclusiveness. Altogether, the project of contextualizing Dr. King as not just anti-racism and pro-colorblindness, but also as someone “who advocated for poor people, spoke up for workers' rights, defended unions, and condemned war” has been given much voice and has entered public discourse.
With the same spirit that pushes us to test what we have been collectively taught and what we individually understand, there is also the need to challenge our popular voices and public figures. It is well documented how Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have been appropriating this call to challenge, by critiquing and criticizing President Barack Obama. But it is a specific recent incident involving Dr. West, where the professor rebukes the President for using Dr. King’s bible to take the oath for his second term, that is concerning and requires evaluation and analysis.
What I find most interesting about Mr. West’s tirade is the relative amnesia it perpetrates regarding Dr. King's legacy as a leader. King was brilliant; a tireless worker; and a man of great dignity and fortitude. But during the entire period of the Civil Rights Movement, and the more expansive Black Freedom Movement, Dr. King was routinely criticized by those inside the movement for being:
- Too complicit to the political mainstream.
- Too accommodating of those resistant to anti-racist laws and legislation.
- Far too willing to accept calls for gradualism and too accepting of passivity, in hope of changing the country's moral conscience over time.
- Too readily accepting of the compromises needed to appease and appeal to the mostly White philanthropists who funded his work.
- Too much in favor of top-down organizing.
- Too comfortable with the bourgeois and liberals, and not “down enough” with those suffering in both urban and rural slums and ghettos
Noted figures like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, James Foreman, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, along with lesser-known members of SNCC, CORE, and other progressive organizations and grassroots efforts were routinely disappointed and upset at King for either some or all of the reasons listed above. To the present moment, what are Dr. West’s problems with President Obama’s political actions and economic philosophy?
West in a 2011 interview“When you look at a society you look at it through the lens of the least of these, the weak and the vulnerable; you are committed to loving them first, not exclusively, but first, and therefore giving them priority.”“I figured, OK, given the structure of constraints of the capitalist democratic procedure that’s probably the best he could do. But at least he would have some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running a muck. I was completely wrong.”“He’s a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”
Sounds pretty familiar right?
The point is not to equalize Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama, nor to be an apologist for both. Too often we make our analyses as if they are part of a zero-sum game; or we explain complexities as mutually exclusive phenomenon which cannot intersect or interact.
Going back to the earlier point about contextualization, an important reason for holistically understanding Dr. King’s activism and intellectual thought, and particularly his move towards eradicating poverty and promoting economic democracy, is that he was pushed to these actions by his dissenters and by critiques from the Left. The young people in Watts who rejected his prescriptions after the 1965 rebellion; the more radical elements of student organizers that wanted him to challenge the exclusion and inequality produced by the U.S. racial system in direct and confrontational language, not conciliatorily and passively; and the labor leaders and intellectuals that pressed upon him the urgency and profoundness of employment discrimination and economic exploitation—these are the central factors that led King to widen his scope and broaden his goals. In large part, that is how he ends up in Chicago protesting housing discrimination in 1966, at Riverside Church speaking out against the war in 1967, and organizing workers in Memphis in 1968. The public nudges and private pushes King received from supporters and others, caused him to make a political move to his left.
Perhaps that is Dr. West’s intention with the cajoling and agitation he has presented President Obama. That in fact he wants Obama to be much more like the King of 1965-1968. It certainly seems that this is his intention, given the comments he made regarding Dr. King’s bible.
But to hear West tell it, Martin Luther King Jr. was always the King of 65-68, and thus always articulated those political objectives. Careful historical examination, and a strong call to our historical memory, reminds us that in fact this is not true. King was just as flawed and problematic then, as West believes Obama is now. And to that point, dissenting and challenging the President is necessary—especially on the economic issues and militarism. But the lesson regarding King that Brother West needed to emphasize was how our leaders in the establishment can be compelled to become more populist and more progressive. Especially with President Obama arguably holding the more pronounced public profile that any Black figure has held since Dr. King, and during a period of social unrest and political economic transformation that threatens to markedly impact this country’s trajectory during the rest of the twenty-first century, we desperately need to understand how organizing, advocacy, and activism can influence the establishment and direct political will.
I do not think thirty minutes tirades at inaugural balls and incomplete narratives of the civil rights movement will achieve this understanding.
But still, outside of our “leaders,” each of us are able to think and talk about what we want of this society; and all of us are able to make actionable what must be done to create a more equitable, just, and inclusive society. In his own MLK Day piece that attempts to properly frame Dr. King’s work, Public Allies CEO Paul Schimtz provides a quote from civil rights historian Charles McKinney that can guide and inspire us to make that equitable, just, and inclusive society real:
"When we elevate leaders of particular movements to the mythic status of great man or woman, we do a disservice to everyone. By placing people on a historical pedestal, we forget that they grew, learned, made mistakes, and struggled throughout the tenure of their leadership, and we forget that these leaders were mentored, collaborated with other leaders, and had to get their followers to believe in their own capacity to step up and lead. Hero-worship relegates the work, thought, and effort of 'ordinary people' to something akin to pleasant background music. Local agents for change and progress lose their voice, and are mercilessly converted into mindless, thoughtless followers of the great man or woman who 'leads' them.”“In order for us to understand and build on this history, we must honor the true leadership paradigm where leaders at all levels - those few who get recognized and the countless others who contribute silently - are necessary for change."
It will take the many hands that will struggle in the future, and the ones that have already worked in the past, to create the broad based leadership and mass movement we need in order to actualize “the change we can believe in.” Not solely the hands that have touched one leader’s bible.