by AndrewMc | 1/18/2010 07:24:00 AM
Today is the day that the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Day. Expect to see a great number of "I Have A Dream" videos, remembrances, and musings.

The "I Have a Dream Speech" is a popular one for Americans. After all, it's safe. It expresses values with which we are comfortable--equality and fairness. [In fact, part of explaining "I Have a Dream" to schoolchildren today includes explaining the now-bizarre conditions under which it was given--segregation.]

In terms of "conservative themes," King's speech references the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation. Its style follows, to some degree, a classic American genre--the jeremiad.

And so, people love it.

But . . .

. . . the "I Have a Dream" Speech is probably not the one for which I would memorialize MLK. In fact, "I Have a Dream" is pretty tame compared to where MLK had gone by the end of his life. When King was fighting against segregation, he was essentially fighting against something that the vast majority of non-Southern whites could see as weird. [I know, I know, I know that segregation was not just a "southern" thing--it was going on in other states. But the struggle was being played out in the south. And the south was seen by non-southerners as a backward, strange place.]

So, the fight against segregation, while incredibly difficult, was a fight against a regional problem--southern extremism.

But by 1968 MLK had begun what he called his "Poor People's Campaign," in which he was highlighting the multiracial nature of poverty in the Untied States. He began to travel across the United States, giving speeches on the nature of poverty in the United States, and on the fundamental unfairness of the American economy.

By this point, King had become quite radicalized. And here he wasn't challenging a problem confined to one part of the country.

Consider his words from the speech "A New Sense of Direction," in which he spoke to the SCLC about the next phase of the struggle, in order to prepare them for the "Poor People's Campaign." Here he talks about the causes of recent riots across the nation:

I find five basic causes of riots—the white backlash; pervasive discriminatory practices; unemployment; the war in Vietnam; and the urban problems of crime and extensive migration.

He goes on from there to explain these problems, but it should be noted that these aren't problems that can be written off as "regional" in nature. He's getting at system, national issues that struck at the heart of the American system in all forms--social, economic, racial.

To redress these issues he planned to call for massive action and change that bordered on the revolutionary:

Now this leads me to say that we must formulate a program and we must fashion the new tactics which do not count on government goodwill but instead serve to compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice. We must demand, for instance, an emergency program to provide employment for everyone in need of a job, or, if a work program is impractical, a guaranteed annual income at levels that sustain life in decent circumstances. A second feature of our program must be the demolition of slums and rebuilding by the population that lives in them. Third, we must make a massive move toward self-determination and the shaping of our own destiny. In other words, we must get rid of the domestic colony which is the ghetto. Fourth, we must delve deeply into the political arena. Wherever possible we must elect well-qualified and committed Negro candidates, as we have in Cleveland, Gary, and in states all across the South. In Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia we have, for the first time, Negroes in state legislatures. We've got to escalate this kind of program, and it is high time that we retire all the white racists who are in Congress. They can be retired if we vote in larger numbers.

How to do this? Mobilize willing groups of people. Who?

The largest group of young people is struggling to adapt itself to the prevailing values of our society. Without much enthusiasm they accept the system of government, the economic relationships of the property system, and the social stratifications our system engenders.


There is a second group of young people, presently small in number but dynamic and growing. They are the radicals. They range from moderate to extreme in the degree to which they want to alter the social system.


The young people in the third group are sometimes called hippies. They are struggling to disengage from society and to give expression to their rejection of it. They disavow responsibility to organize society.

In other words, MLK proposed to unite a large cross-current of American society in a struggle to essentially overturn the American system in order to redress fundamental issues of economic and social injustice. This was radical stuff.

Go to youtube, and try to find any speech by King that isn't "I Have a Dream," or his final speech. Nearly impossible. The King we want to remember is the King that secures our own conservative values.

The King I want to remember is the one who tries to move us forward to address more difficult concerns.

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Blogger AndrewMc on 1/18/2010 9:10 AM:

OK, his "Why I am opposed to the war in Vietnam" speech is there, too. But again, I'd say that this is a pretty safe speech, from a 40+ year distance.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/18/2010 10:29 AM:

Everything I've seen so far today -- three at HNN and one at Edge of the American West -- has taken exactly the same tack you have. It's a consensus, apparently.


Blogger AndrewMc on 1/18/2010 10:58 AM:

Ha. I'm so damn unoriginal its painful. lol


Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/18/2010 12:08 PM:

It's an interesting thing. It seems to me that there's always going to be a disconnect between our civil religion and the reality of history, and I understand the public historian's impulse to push back when people are paying attention.

That's particularly true with MLK, because of the conservative attempts to appropriate elements of his legacy as arguments against reparative racial policies.


Anonymous Anonymous on 2/09/2010 10:56 PM:

I think the most telling MLK quote is the one about how the US military is the "greatest purveyor of violence on the planet"--or something to that effect.


Anonymous Anonymous on 2/09/2010 11:04 PM:

as a side note, i'll add that my favorite instance of what "ahistoricality" calls "the conservative attempts to appropriate...his legacy" is Bill O'Reilly's dubbing King a "traditionalist"--that is, coming from the same political perspective as O'Reilly himself.