The White Abstract King: Misperceptions and Corrections (A Quotatarium)
If they shall fall away, [then] renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.” - Hebrews 6:6
The shame of course, as the title suggests, is the historical memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What has been crucified anew, if you will, (hijacked is more like it) is that very same legacy and memory of exactly what he was about and what he stood for.
A preceding portion of that scripture quoted above suggests, intriguingly so, that it’s impossible for the People Of The Dream, so to speak, to “fall away”. This brings to mind a curious notion I have long since pondered on:
If White Americans regard the racist beliefs and actions of the "founding fathers" and other otherwise great American leaders or icons of the past as simply something that could be attributed to “the times in which they lived”, are the racial attitudes and beliefs Whites have today merely a function, a convenient reflection of the times in which we live in today?
The underlying truth and premise there is that White Americans, in truth, have been historically on the wrong side of race-relations. If we go by the rhetoric of the majority of Whites (and some Blacks who are at least in some respects ideologically or philosophically aligned with what is largely "White thinking"), they would have us to believe that the People Of The Dream, Black people, have indeed fallen way. Now, excuse me, but that's some funny math. And no amount of funny carnival mirrors can compensate for the obvious distortion one would have to accept to make such a premise believeable. But, there does seem to be some support, or at least a theory, for why my thoughts above ring true:
None of the civil rights acts of the 1960's were supported by the majority of whites. [Up to 74% felt that Negroes were "moving too fast" and "asking" for too much.] Neither was desegregation via the Brown v Board decision. And needless to say, neither was abolition of slavery. But interestingly, after laws were changed, more and more people (though admittedly not enough) came to accede to the new norm, and actually reduced their opposition to such laws and changes. Keep in mind, most people are conformist. They assume the laws are legitimate, and the state is legitimate. As a result, when activists force changes, over time (sometimes a very short time), most people come to at least passively accept those changes..." Tim Wise
Passively? Perhaps passively aggressive would be more accurate but at issue here is not just the views of White Americans. Certainly and, obviously, any number of any people of every race/ethnicity in America (or the world for that matter) would seem to latch onto the MLK captured in one line or two of his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. We all know it by now, the homogenized (and bastardized) catch-phrase “content of character” and the other assorted Brotherhood Of Man, colorblind themes. Black folks and White folks holding hands. Ain’t that grand? Such fabulous myths.
Seriously, the force of those words, in context and direct from the source, of course are hardly problematic. The way they have been kidnaped, raped, misappropriated and coopted are without question - problematic. They have been used to shrink and reduce his words, his beliefs in a way to where his most to-the-point views have been rendered unrecognizable. That, of course, is no accident. But Dr. King was particularly mindful of the pretenses of Whites, in particular, who proclaimed to be all for him but were really more of a hinderance.
To highlight my point, I couldn’t help but directly borrow this quote from James Agee taken from a piece on the same subject written by Paul Gaston. It captures this decrowning of King (the taking away some of his ruling philosophies) with uncanny accuracy:
The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor... Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas."
I can hear the words of that (new) Negro spiritual, “Where you there when they crucified my (Dr.) King?”
Certainly, Dr. King has been put to shame and crucified by those who have cynically misused his words against some of the very things he was adamant and unmistakably vocal about. I need not mention Affirmative Action, for surely he weighed in on that even before it earned its name... On the Pro side. I won't mention that he openly advocated for essentially hard quotas. That would seem to suggest he actually was practical and realistic. Note: He spoke about the prevailing dialogue were the White consensus view was to merely concede equal rights (under the law) to Blacks, in minimalist fashion, and how their Letter Of The Law sense of what equality was, was unrealistic - not to mention in violation of obvious logic and the Spirit Of The Law (of equilibrium).
No, and I won't mention how MLK by all appearances was down with Reparations. It's pretty clear that he felt that "They Owe Us" and he said things that literally said just that as well as figuratively calling for "checks". No, talking about all that would be a distraction to the from all this dreaming we like to do. All this devoid of reality rationales some of us, too many of us come up with.
"We've come a long we, but we still have a way to go." If that wasn't so cliche it would be passe'. Such is the stuff of supreme mythology. The empty and meaningless necessary rhetoric for the illusion that there is a commitment to do just that - go all the way. The fact that Kings most practical and relevant views have been marginalized is resounding evidence that there is no such commitment.
Despite new laws, little has changed...The Negro is still the poorest American -- walled in by color and poverty. The law pronounces him equal -- abstractly -- but his conditions of life are still far from equal." - MLK
Something that's abstract is something that is removed from reality. Something that is said and mentioned in a way to draw attention away from the recognizable truth of what has made things current the reality. Finally, something that's abstract, like the prevailing ideas of what "equality" is in America, is something that is disassociated, disconnected from what is specifically at issue. So there is no wonder why King's Dream is what is promoted. Dwell on the abstract and you don't have to be bothered with the troubling facts that come from America's troubling past. Let's just forget that. Along with that, let's forget the conditions King put on his dream too. Conditions he put on just about everything he said.
Obviously, Dr. King wanted to deal with the real. Instead of just merely being satisfied with "equal rights", Dr. King knew that it would take more than the mere passage of laws or even a change in White attitudes towards Blacks to make winning civil rights meaning. He spoke in very specific terms, not just dreamy ones. One specific thing he spoke on was, as his quote above suggests, how he felt there was a pressing need to have real equality in every aspect, every condition of life, not just equal rights on the law books.
So, it is obvious that he recognize both race and class were inextricably tied (again, look at the quote). And, he was an avid proponents of redistributive policies. Again, he did favor Reparations, quotas, and affirmative actions style programs without question. Unlike those who pretend to know him but don't or would rather dismiss his discomforting views, he vigorously thought and rethought what it would take to achieve racial JUSTICE for Black people. That, he saw as no contradiction to his noteable "content of character" clause. So, bump what you've heard.
MLK spoke widely about radical change. And, no, even after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts he still wasn't satisfied. (If you read "I Have A Dream" you would know he set conditions on that too. "We will not be satisfied until...") Even after that, after Blacks were allowed to vote he still advocated radical change and even used that term radical with the term revolution. Now, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that his vision for America and for how Blacks could become fully "equal" would undoubtedly be radically different from what we have today. He wanted to get to the root of the matter. And, at the root of that was the problem he saw his people in.
"The Negro today is not struggling for some abstract, vague rights, but for the concrete and prompt improvement in his way of life." - MLK
See?? He didn't dwell on the abstract. Yes, he had a dream but he spoke widely on Remaining Awake.
Here are some selected quotes to shatter some misperceptions, detach those still in the abstract and properly put MLK into proper perspective with his own words on things that were beyond just dream-speak: