Honoring Martin Luther King means demanding real, structural change
Yesterday’s holiday reminded me of a brief profile of Martin Luther King Jr. written by James Baldwin in Harper’s Magazine in 1961. “King is a great speaker,” Baldwin wrote. “The secret of his greatness … lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them. He does not offer any easy comfort and this keeps his hearers absolutely tense. He allows them their self-respect – indeed, he insists upon it.”
Our recent election year politics have been tragically low on respect, of self or others; hateful bombast is an awful form of “easy comfort,” but it’s in plentiful supply at the moment. We owe it to ourselves, therefore, to try to redeem our capacity for self-respect by wrestling with some of the things that hurt and baffle us.
I decided to attempt that by thinking about King’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” delivered in New York City in 1967.
In this address, King refers to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the passerby who stopped to help a stranger who had been robbed and beaten on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:25-37). In a sense, this is the moral vision upon which the King Day of Service rests.
But individual acts of mercy are not enough. One day, King writes “we will see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.” He calls for us to see that “an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring,” and to embrace that “true revolution of values” that will “look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth,” and, at home and abroad, feel moved to declare that such a contrast “is not just.”
That unjust contrast is greater now that it was when King delivered his speech. While the Roberts Court has read our Constitution to legitimize record levels of inequality, candidates for national office provide the easy comfort of smug denunciations of life’s “losers.” But the problem isn’t just with carnival barkers like Donald Trump; assuming so is just another easy comfort. We need to redeem the idea of shared action, and shared sacrifice, and to assume the genuinely, incredibly difficult task of changing, in political institutions and in our streets, the economic system that currently blights so many lives. Serving those in need is profoundly meaningful, but we need to address the real structural causes of that need, and to demand a change.
King acknowledges a broad, national, and multiracial attempt to resolve the problems created by massive inequality in the first half of the 1960s, and addresses the war that overshadowed, and doomed, that “War on Poverty.” King knew “that America would never invest the necessary funds” in fighting poverty as long as “adventures like Vietnam” drew people, “skills, and money,” away from every other federal commitment. “So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
And how long have we been at war? We’ve been at war in Afghanistan alone for over fifteen years. The result has meant some areas of enormous profitability, but even more inequality. Wartime footing, historically, has augmented more than resolved the racial, economic, and educational gulfs (to name just three areas of obvious injustice) that characterize our national culture. The War on Terror, by whatever name, has indeed been an enemy of the poor. But a willingness to end that status quo means directly confronting the national obsession with threats that are, after all, real. President Obama has recently attempted to challenge the political prioritization of a defense against terrorist organizations over and against any other priority; but as long as Americans keep telling pollsters that they worry about terrorism more than anything else, we can’t just lean on the easy comfort of blaming fear-mongering politicians. Those officials, and candidates, are representing a broad opinion that needs to be challenged in millions of uncomfortable, scary ways.
Part of the reason that the president can begin, however obliquely, to challenge our fears is that he is safe, or soon will be, from having to really worry about representing the national public any more. The State of the Union address this year was a good speech, but the part that I found most moving also, in context, made me sad. It shouldn’t be so striking, so surprising and uplifting, to hear a president of the United States praise democracy. But Obama’s promise to “be right there with you, as a citizen,” engaging in the “difficult” work of American citizens – “to vote, to speak up, to stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable” – is moving, in its recognition of the difficult, and rare, embrace of democracy’s endless debate and compromise and refutation of easy comfort. His administration has certainly failed at times to live up to democracy’s challenges, but that doesn’t undermine his call to assume the difficult task of democratic life.
If we want to honor the meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day beyond the holiday itself, we need to insist on our self-respect by assuming the difficult work of governing ourselves and the responsibilities of democratic life. That means discussion and debate, and not just in government; it means shared commitments, and sacrifice, and finding a way to acknowledge our injustices and the dangers what we cannot escape, no matter how many people we torture, drones we launch, or walls we build.
As King noted in his 1967 speech, we don’t have the luxury of easy comfort. “If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” He seemed to believe that we could be better than that. We owe it to ourselves to try to be.
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