The Comfortization of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Here is Facebook’s splash image “celebrating” Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is bullshit.
See the pretty image of purple, blue, yellow and pink people (notice: none are brown or even caramel) on an off-white National Mall. Read the context-free “do right” quote. As if “Dr. King’s Legacy” actually were “be nice.” This is part of an ongoing effort to comfortize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual legacy, to reduce it to a bland paste that points out nothing, that troubles nothing, that advocates nothing. It is related to the “MLK Day of Service” efforts that try to falsely equate the King message with neighbors helping neighbors pick up litter in park.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s actual message was not for individual people to be nice to their peers. It was not for community members to pick up litter in parks. King’s message was brash, challenging, unsettling, and directed at the centers of American power.
Here is the actual “do right” quote of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, in context, part of a letter he wrote while sitting in jail, arrested by Alabama authorities for the crime of engaging in public political speech:
“We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not telling neighbors to be nice. He was not telling people to go to their local park and pick up litter in a quiet act of collective servitude. He was telling them to urgently insist on and ensure a legitimate role in democracy, the system by which people have a right to influence government. King’s target was not individual courtesy — it was national policy. And the problem identified in King’s letter is not that people sometimes leave cigarette butts on the sidewalk — it is racial injustice.
Here are a few more excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. Let them unsettle you:
“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
Let them provoke you:
“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. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. 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. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, 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. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”
If you have 15 minutes to spare on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, read the whole letter, available in full text here.
If you have 1 hour to spare on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, identify injustice. Organize. Provoke “constructive, nonviolent tension.” Act.