Posted by on Jan 15, 2011 in Blog | 0 comments

I know that saying “King has really meant something to me” is a bit like saying you like the music of the Beatles or that you enjoyed the first Matrix movie, but I can only assert that in my case it’s really, actually true. But sometimes MLK Day bums me out; I feel the popular image of King the civil rights pioneer – the guy who led the Montgomery bus boycott, the guy who gave the “I Have a Dream” speech – often obscures the legacy of King the theologian, the political philosopher. I think he is at least as important as a thinker as he was as a public speaker, which is why I drew him with his mouth closed.

Any remembrance of the civil rights activities of the 60’s can easily turn into a self-congratulatory massage circle, where the implicit message is “thank goodness we’ve got it right nowadays.” Even the more modest pundits who add that “there is still so much work to do” often seem to buy into the general end-of-history onanism. I’m afraid that this spectacle has become more obscene since Obama’s election, and the MLK Day ceremonies he’s presided over have filled me with a disgust that borders on despair. (By the way, I blame the ceremony organizers, not the President, who I’m pretty sure just shows up.) While Obama’s election was definitely a symbolic triumph of huge proportions, and I can’t begin to imagine what it meant to people who were alive in the 60’s, especially blacks, I always try to remember King’s own aversion to specific examples of individually successful black people. In his writings and speeches, he didn’t count the existence of a narrow black middle class as a victory, and if he did cite the accomplishments of individuals like James Meredith or Marian Anderson, it always accompanied a parallel citation of the nameless masses.

I think anyone with eyes can see there are still serious racial inequalities in the U.S. today, and I even think most of the above-mentioned memorializers know this very well, even if they continue to play an ideological game. Moreover, I think, with King, that a fundamental class division underlies most racial divides, and that racial strife, if not exactly a subset of class strife, is certainly inseparable from it. It’s a big taboo to suggest (especially if you’re a white guy like me!) that King’s ideas extend beyond issues of racial injustice, but I think this is exactly what needs to be said if his legacy is to be rescued from those who are turning him into a historical relic of a social fait accompli. A stone monument, for goodness’ sake!

I used to refer to this socialist-minded King as the “post-63 King.” My happy discovery of 2010 was just how inept this description was. For instance, in this mushy 1952 letter to his then-girlfriend Coretta Scott, (90% of which ends up being about the book she lent him, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which I have also read) King claims that “capitalism has outlived its usefulness.” In 1952! It was so refreshing to see that the socialist attitudes that characterize King in the final years of his life had been there all along.

For many years, starting in college, I’ve struggled to reconcile my own leftist (I’d even like to say “communist,” at the risk of being misunderstood) political convictions with my Christianity, and King has probably helped me through more moments of crisis than any one else. When I despondently Googled “can a christian be a communist?” one night, I found this transcription of a 1962 King sermon of the same title. I really encourage you all to read it, and the other archived speeches and writings at Stanford’s MLK Research and Education Institute online, but if you don’t have time, I’ll summarize: Can a Christian be a Communist? King’s answer is a big “no,” followed by an even bigger “BUT…”

My favorite quote: “Indeed, it may be that communism is a necessary corrective for a Christianity that has been all too passive and a democracy that has been all too inert.”

As contradictory as they now seem, I do think Marxist ideas must somehow be incorporated into Christian theology, perhaps in a similar way to how Aristotelian thought was adapted in the later middle ages (a proposal that at the time would have seemed equally untenable!) If this mammoth intellectual project of synthesis ever happens, I think King will be remembered as one who laid the groundwork.

Oh, and one last thing! Let’s please, please, PLEASE start just calling him “King” instead of saying “the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” or something like that every single time. We don’t feel the need to say “Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi” every time, do we?! Maybe at one time it was a big deal to point out that a black person had a PhD, fine. But when a somebody has attained the level of world-historical individual, we generally recognize this by dropping all but their last name. Heck, if the words “Derridean,” “Clintonite” and “Reaganomics” have entered the common parlance since ’68, isn’t it about time we promoted the poor old doctor to a monosyllable?