A Portrait of a Holiday: the Undying Universalism of MLK
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a Nor’Easter slings bullets of rain and stampedes of wind pummel the coast along the eastern seaboard of the United States, the days seem darker for many even if we are the lucky ones who still have electricity. For even in the artificial light of a lamp we can be living in darkness. In many ways the weather is a mirror image of the state of our union; a country at war with itself. A war over ideology. A war over identity. A war of red and white, black and white, white and brown. Right and left. Well, how can you build anything if your left and right hand are battling for the hammer? The ammunition in this war is virtual...for now. Tweets. Shares. Posts. Memes. GIFs. Fake news. Real news. Truth, both truthful and alternative. Orwellian control over perception of our virtual environment has now seeped into reality like waste from a toxic landfill leaking into our water supply. We have all become infected. While the radiation from the toxic event emanates stronger in some people than others, there is no one who is not immune to the fallout. The contamination rubs off and travels, the way the passing of parasites and bed bugs are spread. But this is worse because the proliferation of images and invisible data are another weapon in the arsenal in this new, bizarre Cold War. No one has to touch each other, we just have to touch the “send” button. Our words travel without us having to open our mouths. The osmosis of thoughts enters the psyche of all who dare to read. Anger is exponential on both sides of the divide. Even the righteous have a reckless anger, their hatred boiling over and their point being lost in the sea of digital shouts. At times, the belligerence of the bigots, sadly, echoes that of those fighting for the truth. We have reached an impasse and there seems to be no place of compromise. No common ground. We have allowed ourselves to see our reflection in political rhetoric and have forgotten to see ourselves in the landscape in which we actually inhabit. We connect with our brothers and sisters on our apps but walk past our sisters and brothers in need on the street or in neighborhoods only miles from where we live. We tell people what they need instead of opening up our ears and our hearts to see and listen to what ails a community. Our outlook of the world has been told and shaped by those we see as our leaders. We adapt to their viewpoints and we ingest this information then regurgitate it in conversations, real or virtual. No longer can people agree to disagree because they are told the stakes are too high. They must join the legions of like-mindedness and refuse to hear the other side. Blurbs and headlines seem to be all we need to attack one another. Thus we are all dehumanized into a category. Then out of those categories derogatory comments are created. This is a cycle of hatred which is the same as fighting fire with fire. To a degree we are all guilty. You, me, them. We have been divided and conquered, quarrelled to death and now look who is in power. There is some hope, like the marches around the world this past weekend. Marches peaceful and vigilant. But, in the past, we have marched for justice, too. We have had leaders who spoke prophetically and led us through the dark as a nation and had us face the demons of our country’s ugliest nature. And while our most noble leaders have been slain, we still remembered them for their fight and we hope to invoke them in ours. In this spirit, out of the ashes of our dead are the smoke signals flying high above us so that we may see our way to a land where the conduct we live by bends to the “arc of justice.”
“We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”
Last week commenced with the remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and ended with Barack Obama handing over the keys of the presidency to Donald Trump. Many pundits and politicians, some exuberant and others reluctant, heralded this act as one of the beacons of American democracy...the peaceful transfer of power. While Trump stockpiled his oligarchical cabinet with rich white men, the left leaning populace rose up and marched. In one of the more memorable moments was the punching of a Nazi which went viral. Many cheered this particular form of violence. During the inauguration ceremony cars burned and the peaceful protests were usurped by destructive methods (probably acts committed by professional agitators). But if people dig up the history a little further, there is not much difference between Donald Trump and some of our previous presidents. Look at Nixon, Reagan, the Bush clan. They may have been more polished career politicians but they fought for the same agenda. (Trump just looks and sounds less professional, so he is more relatable to a “deplorable.”) Even some of the Left’s “celebrated” presidents had many egregious policies and had to satisfy corporate and military interests leaving the American public to fight for the scraps. MLK understood the nature of our political system and could see the mechanism of oppression inherent in its capitalistic design. This is why some looked at him as a communist/socialist. Of course, those politically loaded words, still used today, were aimed at discrediting his peaceful pursuit by labelling him with a supposedly derogatory connotation. Thankfully, the labels didn't stick and while he had many followers and supporters, he wasn't universally admired. In fact, in certain circles he was reviled. “Thus were the American taxpayers’ dollars put to use. The FBI waged a campaign of disinformation, outright propaganda, blackmail, psychological warfare, and smear tactics against Martin Luther King.” (Huffington Post) These tactics orchestrated at the highest levels of government began during the Eisenhower administration, continued up to his assassination, and the fruit these tactics bore have given nutrients to some of his detractors today. This was allowed because King was actually viewed by the establishment as a threat to the established order of the state. After his “I Have a Dream Speech” (which was derided in the immediate years following) Senator Strom Thurmond disregarded the speech with a shrug and said “No one (African-Americans) is deprived of freedom that I know about...the Negroes in this country own more refrigerators, and more automobiles, than they do in any other country.” While behind the scenes the FBI and the elected government did all they could to veer King off of his course, his peaceful agitations continued to rub many the wrong way, and not just the government and white supremacists. He even had critics among other civil rights leaders. Malcolm X thought non-violent protest was suicidal and he labelled King an “Uncle Tom” by trying to negotiate with White politicians in Washington. Malcolm X was decidedly more militant in his approach, thinking there was no way whites would ever give the black man a fair shake. The disdain for King wasn’t held by just the government and his rivals. By 1966, according to a Gallup poll, only 33% of Americans in the north viewed King favorably. It appeared he was pushing some uncomfortable buttons across a whole swath of the United States.
“There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
In 1967 King expanded his message and made it an issue transcending race. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and equated the suffering of the poor and oppressed in both countries. He spoke out against the expansion of a government who created the myth of enemies in order to serve their own consuming appetite while at the same time enslaving their own citizens by invoking a draft, then sending the children of their constituents to die invading a country they had never heard of before. All of this without adhering to the rule of law under the Constitution the citizens of the United States were and are at the mercy of. King in his universal message seemed to be further isolating himself from his own followers but at the same time his courage and bravery was elevated even though his criticism of Lyndon Johnson, some felt, was a betrayal. On April 4th, 1968 the message caught up to the man. King was assassinated in Memphis. Immediately following his death an effort was made, led by his wife Coretta, to commemorate King with his own Holiday. This effort lasted for 15 years. Meanwhile the proposed holiday was met with much opposition. It wasn’t until 1983 the bill was passed even though then-President Reagan primarily opposed it before reluctantly accepting the inevitable tide of support. Yet 1983 was not the end of the fight for King’s Holiday. Many legislators at the time were against it, such as John McCain, but none was more against MLK Day than Senator Jesse Helms.
Now to speak ill of the dead is not always acceptable but when describing the life of a man not one senator of the last 50 years of the 20th Century is of more ill repute than Jesse Helms. He is the anti-Martin Luther King. On the senate floor he called King a “Marxist-Leninist” and he brought in FBI documents about King allegedly with prostitutes. He then said King was a “symbol of a divided country.” But his bigotry, racism, and inhumanity extended further than Dr. King. His whole political career was made attacking the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and women. He was a true demagogue and original practitioner of “alternative truths.” He called civil rights worker “sex perverts.” In response to King’s assassination, students from all over the country held candlelight vigils, Helms made derogatory comments about interracial marriage. He voted against all manner of social programs that would help the disenfranchised or protect the environment. He grew up in a town run by the KKK and his father was the chief of police. Of course this helped shape his viewpoint on issues of apartheid in South Africa of which he was a vehement supporter. In politics he was a master at stirring up xenophobic and homophobic fear. To put it succinctly, every disgusting tactic employed by American politicians today Jesse Helms was the master of. His fear mongering and misdirection of blame is something we saw Donald Trump use to win the presidency. The comparisons of the two men have become recent fodder for certain websites. While their upbringings and lives couldn’t be more different, their political strategies were very similar in who they exploited for their greatest political gain. Now we have a president many citizens disdain and fear for the rhetoric he espoused on the campaign and once again we can lean on King as he said, “never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.” America is not immune to the ills that have befallen other nations, and the ills of this nation have contaminated the actions of others.
If we were to follow the words of King, who was a follower of the teachings of Jesus Christ as written in the New Testament of the Holy Bible, we would also be following tenets of other religions. King was a staunch supporter of Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, thus revealing the true distillation of universal truths within King’s teachings especially as he reached his final years. Though, it must be said, King was far from perfect, as we all are. One of the issues with putting someone up on a pedestal is the deification of that person which distorts their humanity and commodifies their path of leadership into catchphrases and looping footage repeated ad infinitum. We see the speeches, we see the posters, the image of the face is everywhere in artistic renditions but we don’t see the person in their private moments. We don’t see them in their moments of doubt and fear. In moments of confusion and anger. We just see them marketed high above on the billboard, a plastic manifestation of who they originally were. Somehow, this image cheapens the message and something is lost. But this is how we remember Dr. Martin Luther King on the third Monday of every January. Yet, still not everyone remembers King the same way.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Even now, certain states have still not let the Confederate legacy go and thus the impact and beliefs of a senator like Jesse Helms still lingers with us today. In Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Virginia Martin Luther King shares the same day with a historically corrosive figure as a concession to the memory of a mythical past only to have existed in the minds of people living in a present without much hope for the future. Robert E. Lee, while a great tactical general during the Civil War, felt the institution of slavery to be a divine and necessary period of history, entrusted to the White race from God to turn the slaves into Christians. He said in a letter to President Pierce in 1856: “the blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things.”
This man, while principled in his misdirected beliefs, shares the holiday with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in those four states. Never will the rifts of injustice be healed when the morally darker periods of our history are celebrated as opposed to rectified. In other states they choose to call the holiday Civil Rights Day, so as not to single out one figure but to honor the sacrifice of all who fought and continue to fight for the justice of the many groups who have been marginalized. This is acceptable but the inclusion of Robert E. Lee is a travesty and must be removed or else the distortion of humanity will forever linger as a distortion of history. Unfortunately, as the years pass and the voices of our diverse nation speak up and tell their story, the official history of the United States becomes more stained and less prone to the adherence of facts lest they be of the “alternative” kind. Much of the division we have today is from the growing pains from the many injustices. This goes from both sides. Many people whose ancestors committed unjust deeds are asked to pay the price and this isn’t fair either. Two wrongs don't make a right. This is why we cannot ask our government to make amends, for they are the chain of the ruling elite who have governed this country unbroken since the earliest days after our separation from the king of England. For the common folks, we just exchanged one yoke for another. Instead of making the crown rich, we enriched the aristocracy unfettered to run the country how they please. We must not look to our government to correct the wrongs because they are the provocateurs of the injustice. For them to correct it would mean the dismantling of their credibility and the “seditious” acts by the likes of MLK (according to the FBI) would be null and void. No, we the people must look at each other and realize we are all on the sinking ship together, and the American government is on the helicopter flying away. But the hope is alive, in this country and abroad. One of the greatest single acts of violence ever enacted upon a population, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, decades later, gave the message of King a new audience. Every year on the third Monday of January, Martin Luther King Day is celebrated in Hiroshima more fervently than some locations in the United States. His protest of vigilant pacifism resonates deeply in a place where the horrors of war had been so shockingly put on display against a civilian population. This just proves once and for all the yearning for peace amongst certain sectors of the world populace not blinded by the false shimmer of imperialistic endeavors and that Martin Luther King continues to inspire despite the ongoing divisions in a postcolonial world.
Below are links for further readings and elaborations on some of the examples. This article is meant to be the beginning of the conversation. Enjoy.