This article was originally published on January 21, 2013. It is being republished today to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Each third Monday in January, the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is remembered in a national day of service, a “day on, not off,” as described by the website MLKday.gov. In towns and cities all across America, concerned citizens will gather to clean up parks, serve meals in soup kitchens, visit nursing homes and homeless shelters, all in an effort to answer MLK’s challenge: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”
While it is no surprise that a Kantian-influenced Baptist minister would encourage outward acts of service, it is frustrating that this one element of thought has formed the primary basis around which the US government has tailored the national holiday honoring King’s memory. MLK was a prolific writer and public speaker, and as such it is not a difficult task to find him on the record about many subjects, his words bolstering most any viewpoint or position that one may want bolstered by his endorsement. But an overarching narrative can be found running through his career that was anchored in a healthy respect for the individual and an opposition to power structures that undermined that consideration. A cohesive view of MLK’s career necessitates that the totality of his philosophy and activism be incorporated into any remembrances taken up in his name, and any one of the following MLK quotations (and the broader sentiments they represent) could have easily been the premise chosen by Congress for his holiday:
On Individuality: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” – “I Have a Dream”
On War: “A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.” – “A Time to Break the Silence”
On Social Change: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. Without persistent effort, time itself becomes an ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of irrational emotionalism and social destruction. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”- Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story
On Direct Action: “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue…. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth…. So must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” – “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”
On Civil Disobedience: “One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’” – “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”
On American Political Liberty: “In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness….It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned….America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” – “I Have a Dream”
“We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.” – “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”
So why didn’t the US government choose to brand MLK Day in this fashion? Despite claiming to, in part, “create solutions to social problems,” the most pressing issues of our day that have their root in statism feature nowhere on the government’s website. In light of King’s statements regarding the Vietnam War, is it really a struggle to imagine what he might think about President Obama’s murderous drone war in the Middle East? Does anyone honestly believe that King would not have used his voice to issue a call against the War on Drugs and its attendant evils of discriminatory policing tactics, entrenched racism, and the growing epidemic of mass incarceration that has given the “land of the free” the largest prison population in the West and depopulated much of urban black and Latino communities of their most valuable assets, namely human capital? Are any of King’s most-pressing concerns regarding justice addressed simply by cleaning a park or feeding the homeless for one day?
Of course not. Only in a statist society where altruism has run amok would a controversial and revolutionary figure like MLK have his legacy so neutered and cherry-picked that it becomes a mere platform for community service, losing its provocative edge. When the oppressors write and maintain the history of the oppressed, the full weight of the oppression and the enormous amount of energy expended to throw it off become mere side stories, and the larger act of practicing hegemony necessarily recasts the human struggle for liberation against state power into benign apolitical movements, best remembered not by grabbing picket signs in protest, but by grabbing brooms and rakes to make state-blighted communities appear more aesthetically pleasing. For shame!