Post MLK Day Thoughts

It’s been a few days since MLK day. Often, I have found MLK Day celebrations to be romanticized interpretations of Dr. King’s life and work. I think this co-optation of his words, work and image have also turned many social activists off from the holiday, and I’ve seen only a few reflective posts in the blogosphere that I visit.  I invite readers to share how they usually spend their MLK Day by posting a comment.

A while ago, I came across this speech (copied below) by Vincent Harding, who had worked closely with Dr. King. I had the honor of meeting Dr. Harding at a Beloved Communities gathering. Being in his presence helped me begin to unlearn the romanticism of the Civil Rights Movement and superficial understanding of Dr. King that is one of the more dominating narratives of those times. Such insights, along with reflections like the one below, help ground my understanding of Dr. King, especially during the challenging years of his political development leading up to his assassination.

From Cross Currents, 1993. Vincent Harding, professor at the Iliff School of Theology at the University of Denver, is the author of Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (Orbis Books, 1996):

Every time I think about the possibilities of this nation of ours in the twenty-first century, I recognize that we are really citizens of a developing country. No matter how that term has been used in the past, that is who we are now. The United States of America is a work in progress — a shadow on the wall of a multiracial, compassionate democracy that does not yet exist, a project that requires the perseverance of lifetime workers. So I see us coming here this evening to think about, talk about, struggle about, shout about, sing about, where we might take our country as citizens of this land — how we might help each other awaken from the great moral and political sleep that has deepened among us in the 1990s and recognize again the continuing democratic urgency of Langston Hughes’s call: “we the people must redeem our land and make America again.” As we go forward in this moment and in the many moments before us, we will surely discover what our foreparents have already discovered in many, many places: we do not have the luxury of any kind of distanced research into the twenty-first century. The only research that will help to make the new century a human experience for this nation is a deeply engaged research, in which we offer ourselves as participants in and exemplars of what it is that we seek. And tonight, I ask you to meet in this place with two of the great citizen-teacher-workers of our century, seeking their wisdom and inspiration for this current stage of the ongoing, never-ending American project of creating a more perfect union. That, you see, is what we Americans have in common. We have been called upon, all of us, to create a more perfect union.

Considering such a national vocation, I’d like you to reflect on two people who have spoken deeply, importantly to me; the first is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who escaped the moral and physical catastrophe of the Holocaust to bring his wisdom, courage, and commitment to our struggles for righteousness in this land. And I bring him, first, because Rabbi Heschel often chose to stand and march and sometimes risk his life with my brother friend, Martin Luther King, Jr. Just ten days before King was assassinated, Heschel stood with him to introduce his friend to a group of rabbis from the northeast section of this country. And it was necessary to bring Martin to the rabbis because the brother rabbis, like so many other religious and political people, were not sure, in 1968, that they liked the Martin King who was coming North as much as they had liked the King of Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and St. Augustine. Prophets on our doorsteps are always harder to deal with than prophets far away. So Heschel, who knew something about the world of prophets and who shared King’s deep commitment to the necessity of fundamental change in this society, brought to his co-religionists a word about King that breaks through to our own time and to our own struggles for twenty-first century America. “Martin Luther King, Jr. is a voice, a vision, and a way,” he said. Then continuing, Heschel declared, “I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.”

This seems to me to be a clear word to those of us who are trying to find a way to recreate for the next century the great tradition that King and Heschel and Hughes represented, the tradition that is really for those of us who refuse to simply wait for the future. The words are for those of us who are committed to join in the creation process, those of us who want to help shape the future, those of us who want to help create the twenty-first century, rather than simply to wait around to see what the end will be. And I think something in us tells us that Heschel is right, that King — for all the ambiguity that we feel about him at many times — is indeed a voice, a vision, and a way, that he is somehow deeply related to the future of America, just as he was deeply related to its past. But what is also clear to me is the fact that all of us, being who we are, want to approach King in a manner that makes his voice, his vision, and his way as easy as possible for us to manage.

In that context, I remember the powerful poem by the young man who was only in his twenties when Martin was assassinated, Carl Wendell Hines. Long after the long-searching bullet had finally located King, Hines wrote,

Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They
cannot rise
to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives.
And besides,
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.

We must let Hines speak to us as we try to overcome the fear and cynicism that says there is no such thing as a better world. For King is related to all who are called upon to help create the twenty-first century. Still, Hines is right: we insist on approaching King in a way that makes him easy to handle; we want King to fit our agendas.

One indication of this is our tremendous fixation on the Martin Luther King of the March on Washington, of “I Have a Dream” — magnificent, beautiful oratory, but not quite to the point for the twenty-first century. Something in us wants that triumphant, sun-drenched hero to stay right there, so that we can almost worship, not only him, but those words that he spoke. So often the act of worshiping becomes a process of denying life itself. The hard work of creating the twenty-first century demands something else from us — and from King. Those of us who want to create a twenty-first century marked by justice and compassion in this nation need a hero who is not always triumphant — who also works in the shadow times of fear, tragedy, betrayal, and death. They are all too much of our life; we need somebody who knows the way we walk, not a plaster-of-Paris somebody on top of a pedestal. If we are going into the twenty-first century, we need somebody who insists on going right on through the storm, through the night, doing the work that has to be done. We need to take a new look at King — at the King who presses us beyond the March on Washington.

Perhaps if we follow King carefully enough, we will realize that the official statement of the March on Washington in 1963 said, “This is a march for jobs and freedom.” Not for little children to hold each other’s hands, wonderful though that may be, but for their mothers and fathers to be able to work. If we keep going with King, we can more adequately take on the issues of our coming century. For instance, we may understand how King went out from the sunlight of the Mall to retrace his steps back to Birmingham, Alabama. There, just three weeks later, he was forced to deal with the fact that white terrorist bombers had destroyed a church — and the lives of four children.

If we keep going with King, we go into some very tough places. But anybody who is not ready for tough places, isn’t ready for the twenty-first century in America. So I want to wonder out loud: what was on his mind when he went back to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and knew that that church had not been chosen accidentally; it had been bombed because it was the headquarters of the campaign that he and Shuttleworth had led in Birmingham, and those children were his offspring. How do you deal with that? I would like us to move with King in such a way that we take on the difficult questions that a woman or a man has to deal with when trying to give leadership in transforming a society that usually does not want to be transformed.

If we follow King closely enough, we might even get to the fall of 1963 and read again what Coretta King had to say about that day in November when they sat before their television screen in that house on Sunset Street in Atlanta, and she and Martin watched the somber and elegant processions that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As they watched, Martin turned to Coretta — turning just enough for her to be able to watch what was on his face, and in his mind –and said to her, “Cori, this is what’s going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.” I’d like to stay with that King — the one who didn’t make it to forty, the one who had this profound sense, deepening all the time, that the sickness of the country would get to him — but nevertheless kept on-going.

Last January, I was at a middle school in Denver. I was talking to the youngsters about the King who kept going in spite of the dangers. Afterward, one young man about thirteen came walking up to me and said, “Now, listen here, Dr. Harding, if King knew that he was gonna get knocked off, how come he didn’t just chill out for awhile?” I looked at him and started to think about the wonderful conversation we were going to have, but right in the midst of it a girl about the same age, who was right next to us, said, “Oh, come on now, Dr. King couldn’t chill out. He had work to do!” If only we would listen to children and let them take on the hard issues.

Indeed, if we want to stay with King, we must also face those issues. In the summer of 1964 we would follow King as he gets the word that three young freedom workers in Mississippi were missing, probably dead. What King does then is remarkable. After all, he had almost nothing to do with the organizing of Mississippi Summer, but when he heard that three boys were missing and probably dead, he immediately got up and went there. No program, no solution, no search squad — he simply knew he had to be there, that’s all. Sometimes, that’s all you can know, and all you need to know to be human.

But of course, to follow King is to find the glory times as well. Like December 1964: we see him at the Nobel award ceremony in Oslo, bursting with pride, but also now growing into a deeper sense of what his ministry of peace-making and justice-making is all about, knowing more than he had ever known before that it could not be confined to this country, that he is responsible for so much more.

One of my favorite times with King is in Selma, Alabama. The people gathered there included some wonderfully crazy and bodacious adventurers from SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), who were the shock troops of the nonviolent revolution of this country. They had started plowing the ground in that place and had invited, of all people, Malcolm X to come down and spend some time with them in February 1965. It is simply fascinating what Malcolm wanted to do when he came to Selma in 1965. No great big speech burning white folks and black Christians and all kinds of other folks that he could burn so well, and often justifiably. No, Malcolm came to Selma and said, “I want to talk to Dr. King.” But Martin, as was his unfortunate habit, was in jail. And they wouldn’t let Malcolm break in. Instead, he went to talk with Coretta. And he said, “Mrs. King, will you tell Dr. King that I had planned to visit with him in jail? I won’t get a chance now because I’ve got to leave. [But], I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking that I could make it easier.” When Martin got out of jail and Coretta told him about this, he was exultant: “Hey, that Malcolm is a beautiful brother. He really is.”

As the poet put it, Malcolm “became much more than there was time for him to be” — and two weeks later, he was gone. I would like us to follow fast enough, far enough, deep enough, past the sunshine of the Mall and consider what it meant for King and Malcolm to be possibly complementary forces in the same struggle. What it meant to them, what it meant to black people, what it meant to this country, and what it meant to the people who thought they owned this country, to have these two men coming closer together. The only way that they could come together was for them to break loose from their older base communities and take great new risks. I think that’s twenty-first century style, and that’s why I’d like us to follow that kind of pathway.

Everybody who has seen Eyes on the Prize — and if you haven’t seen it you should not consider yourself an educated American citizen — remembers those wonderful scenes of the Selma to Montgomery march, that great pilgrimage, that great dance through Alabama. And everybody remembers, too, that there is no pilgrimage, there is no dance, there is no facing the powers of injustice without there also being more martyrs. King had to deal with that. I keep seeing him in those post-Mall days constantly being reminded of the cost of personal and social transformation, and I think it is necessary that we face those costs and ask ourselves, “Now what do we do? Do we chill out and look for safety and security? Or do we accept the fact that we have work to-do?”

I want us to remember what it meant for Martin Luther King to return to Montgomery after the march from Selma. A ten-year cycle had been completed: 1955, the beginning of the public ministry as it were; 1965, time maybe for him to retire on his laurels. And possibly to get a university professorship, which he always thought about in some back part of his mind. At the end of that fifty miles of marching through danger, at the end of those five days on the road, at the end of these ten years of his career, he gets to Montgomery, and can you imagine this? Martin King does not say, “Now I am ready to hang it up, and now we can rest.” He says, “You rest, but rest for just a minute because we have got to keep going. Now we have got to face the Northern cities. Now, we have got to face the tremendous exploitation of poor people in the urban centers of our nation.” He’s saying this in the spring of 1965 to all of us who thought that the movement was not concerned about these things: “We’ve got to take on those terrible schools, terrible inside and dilapidated outside. We’ve got to figure out why people have to walk around our cities without jobs when they want to work. We can’t stop, we’ve got to keep going.” In other words, after ten years, King simply catches his breath for a minute and goes on into even more dangerous territory.

I would like us to be there when Lyndon Baines Johnson signs the act that does so much to transform the political system of this country, an act purchased in blood, developed by poor, so-called powerless people. Unless you see King there, unless you see the marvelous rejoicing of that day in August, you can’t imagine what he must have been feeling when the next moment Watts breaks out in flames. The folks in Los Angeles are saying, “Thanks very much, we really appreciate that Voting Rights act, but that doesn’t cut it for us. We’ve got other plans, we’ve got other stuff that must be dealt with.” And they said it in fire. And as you might expect, Martin King hears about Watts, sees it on television, and again, he has no plan, has no program, has nothing concrete that he can offer –but he decides he’s got to go to the fire, partly because of the fire burning in his own bones. He’s got to go to the young people, partly because they are his people.

And when he gets to Watts, some of the folks don’t have the slightest idea who he is, and they start throwing rocks at him and Bayard Rustin. But afterward, they sit and talk and Martin looks around at the burning buildings and asks, “What are you hoping to accomplish here?” And they say, “We won.” And he said, “What? You won? What did you win? Look at this.” And they said, “We made everybody pay attention to us.” I want us to go with Martin past the Mall, to the moment when he comes to a new understanding of what it means to pay attention to the cries of the rejected ones, because there’s going to be a lot of attention needed in the twenty-first century. More than just arm’s-length public policy programs — real attention.

From my perspective, one reason we have to follow King out into those strange places that he goes is that the man shows that he is really sort of crazy by the stuff that he tries. For instance, after that magnificent victory in the South, King is crazy enough to take seriously what he has said to the people. Those who talk about King the great orator, do not understand: King was not simply a great orator — he was a great mover of himself and others through terrible situations. He could orate because he had moved. “You’ve got to get into the Northern cities,” he told them. By January 1966, he leaves Alabama and goes to Chicago. You know he’s crazy. Anybody who goes to Chicago in January when she or he has the chance to be in Alabama must be a little bit off-center. But if you consider where the center of this country is now, and will be in the twenty-first century, you know we need as many eccentrics as possible. And that was King –off to Chicago in the winter. Off not just to the South side of Chicago, where some very important people lived, but off to West Lawndale, one of the toughest, most needy places you could find in Chicago. There we hear King speaking a word that is most unpopular at the end of the twentieth century: “I choose to identify with the underprivileged … I choose to identify with the poor … I choose to give my life for the hungry … for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity … I choose to live for and with those for whom life is one long, desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little, I’m going that way. If it means sacrifice, I’m going that way. And if it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice saying, do something for others.”

When King made that decision — and it was a conscious decision — he caught the attention of a perceptive New York Times reporter, David Halberstam, who traveled with King for several weeks during that period. “King has decided to represent the ghettoes,” he wrote. “He will work in them and speak for them but their voice is harsh and alienated. If King is to speak for them truly, then his voice must reflect their voice. It, too, must be alienated and it is likely to be increasingly at odds with the rest of American society.” Halberstam was right — and the FBI and the CIA agreed. From that point on, they accelerated their attempt to subvert the life and work of one of the greatest lovers of American democracy that the nation has ever produced. At the same time, as we listen to the new voice of King and observe him carefully, we have to recognize that this man was dealing with deep hungers, deep needs, deep weaknesses in his own life. If we can look at him closely, avoid the voyeurism of modern television, and try to see him with both integrity and compassion, we realize that in one terrible motion he is both damning and redeeming himself again and again and again. That’s the King I would like us to see; that’s the King I would like us to know –no putty-like King, but a hard, difficult, life-true-King.

I would next suggest that you see King toward the end of his life on the Meredith march in Mississippi as he walks side by side with Stokely Carmichael, knowing that Stokely wants the mass media to hear Black Power, and if he’s walking with King, the media will be there. King knows this, but with generosity of spirit, he keeps walking with Stokely. And a young teenager comes up to King and says, “I hope you understand, now, Dr. King, you were trying to get us to love white people before we loved ourselves.” We need to stay with King long enough to hear all of that. Because when King heard it, he must have also heard a friend of his saying, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He knew that black power and black consciousness and black self-love were a religious imperative, necessary for truly loving anybody, necessary for the future of America. Healthy self-love is a religious imperative.

When King began to speak out on Vietnam, it was not a popular movement. He risked a great deal –including, I am convinced, his life. But he had said, “I identify with the poor,” and he was not willing to stop his identification at the borders of any country or any nationality. He knew that the poor of this country were being sent to destroy the poor of that country; he could not be silent in the face of such tragedy.

Finally, there are two more things that I want to suggest we must deal with as we move with King through the urban explosions of the late 1960s. As he was going through that experience, he had to figure out the question constantly: “Do I still believe in nonviolence?” And what became clearer and clearer was not that he believed in nonviolence as some kind of abstract concept; what he believed in more and more was the necessity for nonviolent revolution in America if the poor were going to be dealt with in justice and compassion. That’s why King began calling on the Chicanos, the native Americans, the Appalachian whites, and saying, “Come on together with us black people and let’s gather ourselves together around this issue of poverty. Through the Poor People’s Campaign, let’s challenge our government to change its ways.” He asked them not be satisfied with testifying on behalf of policy documents. “No,” he said, “let’s organize ourselves so that we can be the policy makers, so that we can challenge the policy makers, not with other words, but with deeds.” That was King, the voice, the vision, the way toward a compassionate nation.

I suspect the twenty-first century will need a lot of challenging of the policy makers, not with words but with deeds. So where else could King end up when somebody called to say, “Martin, the garbage workers are in trouble”? Where else can this Ph.D. in philosophical theology end up, but going to the garbage workers? Crazy man. Everybody else knows what Ph.D.s are for, but he apparently didn’t. He thought that they were for serving garbage men. And I call your attention to that because, as Martin used to say, we need more Ph.D.s who will pay close attention to the deep issues of American life today and tomorrow in order to create a more perfect union.

The last word of all is in many ways the most painful one, but we must go with King far enough finally to be able to face the fact — the hard, necessary fact — that there is a very strong likelihood that the agencies of our own federal government were deeply involved in his assassination. Now what do you do with that? what do we do with that? For me it’s clear that if you follow King that far, there’s no chilling out, no selling out, no running out. There’s work to do. And we are the ones who must do it. We the people must redeem our land and remake America –again and again and again. The whole future of America depends upon the impact and influence of Martin Luther King, through us, remaking America again and again.


  1. Honestly, I am not ashamed to say that I do not do anything especially related to MLK on MLK day.

    I am glad to have a day off from work. Most of the time I go out of town to visit friends or to club. ATL on MLK weekend is like Black Pride all over again, some say it is even bigger.

    MLK day does a good job of making sure people never forget that time and what MLK stood for. It keeps his name and legacy in our collective thoughts. Even if you do nothing special like me, you know the reason that you have this day to do nothing special .

  2. I have been turned off of the holiday becaused of the romanticized interpretations and falseness in which people work under but I still feel deeply about the profound work MLK did while he was alive and its influence through his death.

    I did community service with the students at the school I used to work at and I went to a town hall about curing crime and helping ex-offenders re-enter society. I was tired and I wanted to sleep in but it just does not feel right at all to me. Despite the mockery others make of his legacy, I must do my part and respect it regardless. I learned a lot at the town hall (mainly about how little others knew) but I plan to hold officials there accountable for their words and discussions to really help ex-offenders. Someone want to help me write a letter to the mayor of Philadelphia?

    I enjoyed your post MLK reflection piece because I think its important to remember his legacy and its impact not just on MLK day but everyday in our lives.

  3. jennylx

    I worked with Starlet and Josh to plan their LAMP workshop in the morning, and then we went to the anti-war march downtown. I think the march is a nice tradition because it forces people to revisit MLK’s strong anti-war position, articulated in his “A Time to Break the Silence” speech. I also always enjoy the march because it brings out everyone in the city, from the welfare rights folks and the anti police-brutality folks to the mosaic youth theater and “food not bombs” anarchists. Sometimes if you’re lucky you get a high school marching band too. But it’s also kind of a sad tradition because for the past 4 MLK days now, we’ve had a frkn war to protest, and it’s hard to imagine a time when we won’t be protesting war and death and destruction. The last thing I did on MLK day was watch “Children of Men,” which is a film about the end of humanity. I haven’t decided yet if that was a good way or a bad way to end the holiday.

  4. I took my kids to the hands on museum in ann arbor–which was having a free admittance day due to the holiday. On the way over to the museum we talked about how “Martin” (which is what kids call him) wanted knowledge and fun to be free for everybody, and about how he wanted to make a whole new world. Then because baby bfp wanted to know, we talked about ida b wells, sorjourner truth and harriet tubman. because baby bfp was tired of only hearing about “boys” 🙂 and she wanted to know where all the girls were at.

    Although, I’m usually with T. Zac. I like to spend the time at home, reflecting quietly–usually we listen to his “mountian top” speech together as a family and then just sort of seperate and spend time thinking about things. Reflection is too often forgotten as a necessary part of movement, I think.

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