What We Really Learned From MLK Jr.
Every year, like an amateur David Attenborough, I settle in to watch one of American Christians’ favorite pastimes, the ceremonial posting of Martin Luther King Jr. quotes on this, the day on which we as a nation have chosen to honor him. Year after year, we can observe lines from his “I Have a Dream” speech, his letter from Birmingham Jail, and other such addresses promoting peace, solidarity, and Christian brotherhood. Often, these quotes are accompanied by a comparison to those with similar stated goals acting today, almost always with the wish that the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, was more like that of MLK.
There’s a certain irony in this annual tradition, of course, which reveals much about our cultural understanding of King as well as our criticisms of the Black Lives Matter Movement, so I thought I would take some time today to examine what we can actually learn from MLK, and how we can apply that learning to the current movement.
First, it would probably be helpful to examine the comparison in depth. Speaking in generalities, when the two are compared, MLK is treated as an exemplar of all the teachings I mentioned above: solidarity, peaceful protest, and the appeal to Christian and Liberal ideals as the basis for equality for Black people in America. BLM, on the other hand, is portrayed as racially antagonistic or divisive, violent, and Marxist (I.e. operating outside Christian and Liberal ideals).
There is cognitive dissonance on two levels here: first, in the popular understanding of MLK, and second in how we discuss the two as more or less in continuity. I’ll take these in turn.
First, we should consider the contemporary reception of MLK. It is easy for us as White Americans and Christians, especially those in northern states, to view MLKs opponents as a collection of essentially alien moral monsters: seething racists, Klan members, and the like. We imagine that their arguments would mostly fall along the lines of pseudo-science and incoherent racism. This is, of course, a lie. Their arguments, which I present below in picture form, should be very familiar:
In short, the contemporary arguments against MLK were much the same as those brought against BLM today: Marxism, violence, and troublemaking.
Now, there is a sense in which some of this is true. MLK certainly did have connections to leftist groups, and his writings betrayed some leanings toward that perspective, but that is hardly a surprise. The man was spearheading a popular movement based on solidarity between (in part) economically suppressed groups. It would be more surprising if he didn’t have socialist friends, or at least see their point. In fact, many (actual) Marxists critique the modern BLM movement for insufficiently following MLK in this regard, for failing to see race as a component of class rather than as a pressure point in and of itself (I’m not making statements in either direction on this point, merely noting the discourse). It is an essentially Marxist point to start from an idea of solidarity, to reject Liberalism’s atomized individual and to view people and systems in the context of broader communities. So, while it is obviously not a fair point against his claims or desire for justice, it is, in a way, accurate to say MLK was working within a Marxist paradigm.
As far as violence and trouble-making, the same was true then as it is today. When people set out to protest peacefully and are met with violence, there is a near guarantee that the protest will devolve into a riot, and it is beyond question that the protests and Civil Rights work of the 60’s were constantly and brutally met with extreme violence by the state, up to and including his assassination in Memphis. This brings us, actually, to what I understand as the enduring lesson of MLK’s life.
What we finally learned from MLK, and what you partially see from the BLM movement, is that it makes no difference whether your movement is confessionally Christian, preaches peace and solidarity, or appeals to Liberal ideals: You will end up being murdered anyway. So, given that those would only tend to be regulating principles, holding a movement back from making progress as quickly as possible and providing no apparent value in the long term, they have been (somewhat) abandoned.
Now, it remains risible to assert that the BLM movement as a whole (I am not particularly interested in the individuals who managed to secure the domain first) is fundamentally anti-religious for a couple of reasons. First, no authentic call for justice can be outside the justice which we as Christians are commanded to seek, and second, for the simple fact that Black Americans are far and away our most religious demographic, highest in church attendance, practice, and upholding Christian views of the family or any other subject. They are condemned as anti-Christian en masse merely for asserting that there is and has been a systemic issue in America, which is tantamount to apostasy for the vast majority of White American Christians.
My hope and prayer is that we as American Christians will reconsider both of these lies (That we would have stood with MLK if we oppose BLM now, and that there is some conflict between the Christian claim and popular calls for justice and reform) which we seem to have accepted wholesale, and move toward a greater solidarity with the poor, widowed, and oppressed, as the gospel of Jesus Christ demands. As always, this will involve first and foremost smashing our idols and repenting of our use of them. I’ll leave with the words of St. Oscar Romero, one of my personal heroes, who said:
“Let us be today’s Christians. Let us not take fright at the boldness of today’s church. With Christ’s light let us illuminate even the most hideous caverns of the human person: torture, jail, plunder, want, chronic illness. The oppressed must be saved, not with a revolutionary salvation, in mere human fashion, but with the holy revolution of the Son of Man, who dies on the cross to cleanse God’s image, which is soiled in today’s humanity, a humanity so enslaved, so selfish, so sinful.”