MLK Day: Our Discordant National Holiday

By Eric Martin

Warning: this post includes a graphic image of torture tactics.

Today America claims to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but this nation does not know what that means.

King’s dream is often invoked but his social vision is largely neglected. Seldom if ever does one hear that he declared America to be “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” came to agree with Malcolm X that his dream may have given way to a “nightmare,” and planned to give a sermon called “Why America May Go To Hell” before he was gunned down in April of 1968. This is a man who wanted to move toward “democratic socialism,” sharply condemned America’s murderous war in Vietnam and its neo-colonial aspirations, and preached repeatedly that racism was intimately wed with capitalism, poverty, and war.

These are not ancillary views one can disconnect from King’s character but rather central.  They sprung from the same faith that produced his celebrated words on race – words we are yet to communally embrace, despite our verbal praise for the man who spoke them. Any remembrance of his life divorced from those views creates what Cornel West calls a “Santa Clausified” figure. America prefers King as a jolly old myth it can control and tell selective tales about, not the flesh and blood convict who took to the streets in pursuit of divine justice like an Old Testament prophet.

Celebrating Death
Not three months after we celebrated King, who preached love of enemies, we celebrated killing our enemy.

But for whom did King seek justice? For black Americans, no doubt, and in so doing he and the movement that carried him showed us much about loving one’s enemies. (This is another lesson fallen on deaf ears, if our national euphoria over killing bin Laden is any indication). The powerful images of those seeking their civil rights being beaten by police, sprayed with fire hoses, and bitten by dogs are highly important but seem to have cast a shadow of un-reality over King’s life. Part of his Santa Clausification has made those images distant and otherworldly, allowing that sacrifice to make little claim upon the lives of Americans today. We surely assume it is to his credit that he preached love toward white terrorists like Bull Connor, but little has been said about loving bin Laden today.

Yet King sought justice for all in need regardless of race or location, teaching us much about loving one’s neighbors. Perhaps our nation can find him more accessible from this angle. Before his death he planned a Poor People’s Campaign because he could not ignore the unemployed or underemployed of all races. He spoke out for the Vietnamese peasants, including the over one million Vietnamese disabled by a vicious partnership between corporation and government which created Agent Orange. (We have only just begun to clean up our toxic chemicals there.) He died while working for sanitation workers under brutal, sometimes fatal working conditions in Memphis.

He made everyone his neighbor. He claimed that we live in a “world house” and could consider no one a stranger, for every human is a sister or brother. This message, particularly for Christians who worship the man who told his followers to love their neighbors, should be salient in a world in which technology has rendered all peoples neighbors.

King discussed the parable of the good Samaritan the night before he died by separating those who encountered the man in need into two parties. Those who did not help asked, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” The good Samaritan, however, asked, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” Americans have less and less with which to justify complacently refusing to ask the Samaritan’s question while our neighbors suffer, sometimes at our government’s hands.

Let us also recall that the state considered King dangerous. The FBI under Hoover distrusted him, tracked his moves, tried to gain evidence about possible Communist ties, attempted to blackmail him by threatening to publicly accuse him of homosexual activity with fellow worker Bayard Rustin, and, most egregiously, tried to drive him to suicide to stop his work. King infuriated President Johnson by speaking out against the Vietnam War in 1967. John and Robert Kennedy considered him a nuisance in the face of the more important work to be done in the Cold War. Even some pastors disliked his methods, and some of the criticism from his fellow clergymen prompted his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”

We are "responsible citizens" when we violate the Gospels and pay people to torture. Is this consistent with celebrating MLK Day?
We are “responsible citizens” when we violate the Gospels and pay people to torture. Is this consistent with celebrating MLK Day?

All this amounts to the American government (and part of the church) rejecting King’s attempt to apply the Gospels to real life. He lived as if Scripture is true and that made him an enemy of the state. Christians everywhere should take particular note of this facet of his life. Americans are praised for acting in the precise opposite spirit of the Gospels – paying the government to drop bombs on our sisters and brothers, storing away savings for our own future, and ignoring those in need on the road while looking to our own secure interests. That is considered responsible. But King, who acted as if the Gospels were meant to be lived, was derided in life and has had essential parts of his character hollowed out of his legacy.

So let us consider how to celebrate today. It is good to recall the women that propelled his career by organizing the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and how he overshadowed their accomplishments. It is right to remember that some thought he was not sufficiently radical, such as some in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Freedom Riders. It is necessary to bear in mind that masses of people led the movement for which he became the face.

But King himself is still massively important. He is properly celebrated not by the interchangeable politicians who decontextualize carefully selected quotes of his to fit American propaganda but by those who live as if the Gospels are true and justice is real. It is not about a day’s celebration but a life’s work. King is rightly praised through lives lived well – by the Dorothy Days, Oscar Romeros, and myriad unheralded names that have slipped through the cracks of historical memory. His life is a testament to what happens when theology takes to those in the streets and back-alleys as Jesus did.

When politicians like John McCain and Ronald Reagan tried to prevent the creation of a holiday in King’s honor, perhaps they were just being more honest than most Americans today who do not wish to remember the reverend rightly. In his final speech, King called for “dangerous unselfishness.” For those of us living in social systems designed to encourage catastrophical selfishness, it is time to unearth King as he was. The Guantanamo prisoners, the drone-bombed, the unemployed, the women, the Third World, the vegetable pickers, those who make our clothes and computers, and – perhaps most sad on this day – the blacks and other minorities all await such a resurrection.

Eric Martin is a doctoral student in historical theology at Fordham University in New York.