Celebrating MLK as a Radical

Martin Luther King Full Employment MarchProbably the dominant way of celebrating the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday (as opposed to taking advantage of it) is a paean to some form of "can't we all get along?" One of the most likely MLK quotes for this theme is:
This will be the day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God, Almighty, we are free at last!"
Obviously that is a noble sentiment and we should work to bring that day to reality. But less emphasized today is how MLK realistically expected to get there. We could all cite non-violent civil disobedience as his core method, but we also likely downplay the disobedience required for this method to effect real change.

As Juan Cole says:
We honor today a man who repeatedly broke the law. Who conspired to break the law. Who put tens of thousands of people up to breaking the law. He broke the law while adhering to the principle of active non-violence, of loving the jailer and winning over the persecutor. He broke laws that he saw as unjust and unconstitutional, and over time he redefined them as illegitimate by his passionate advocacy.
Is anyone today redefining something as unjust as torture as illegitimate with passionate advocacy? A few, but they mostly have little power or following. While those with power or following either quietly try to put it behind us or continue to trumpet torture's necessity, not just its legitimacy.

However, torture is just the most egregious example. There are plenty of other causes that deserve more radical advocacy. MLK gave a list of some of them in a 1963 speech at Western Michigan University:
[T]here are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a radical. The best honor I can think of is to do something radical yourself.

UPDATE: Serendipity found me listening to KFAI driving home just after 6 pm. It was playing the keynote speech given by the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery at the Martin Luther King Breakfast in Minneapolis today. I'm happy to say we struck the same theme. The audio is here.

UPDATE II: David Pyle has posted a great sermon about the history of MLK and civil rights at the Unitarian Church in Evanston, Illinois.

UPDATE III: Another sermon, this one at my church, Unity Church-Unitarian, by Rob Eller-Isaacs, Setting the Course.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. Today, we are only moved in masses by having the opporunity to throw some money at problems when the crisis seems big enough (Katrina, Haiti), but otherwise people don't want to be bothered. So many injustices yet people do not even want to get bothered with getting outraged, or even expressing their dissatisfaction. If they are kept unaware, uneducated people feel more of a sense of relief that they do not have to worry about those things, regardless of how unjust they may be. MLK had a different approach from Malcolm, but both were radicals. We haven't changed in that we no longer need leaders such as them, we simply do not have those radical leaders and radical people willing to act. For now, this country sleeps...

T.O.M. said...

An elegant reminder of just how far "we", all of us, have to go. Perhaps inequities, social dislocations such as MLK spoke of 1963 can be a common objective to bring together both sides of the partisan political divide. One could only hope...no, people need to act...to make that an achieveable goal.

Anonymous said...

Good to have you blogging again! MLK showed us there is nothing passive about non-violent civil disobedience. It requires the force and passion of a revolutionary and more courage than resorting to violence. I think Rev. Lowery called MLK a non-violent revolutionary.

I agree with anonymous- it is easier to take the route of least resistance in the battle for justice.
In our time, giving a little money to the cause is often the extent of our involvement and moral commitment to the fight against injustice. It is good to be reminded by the life of MLK that non-violence is a radical movement that requires incredible passion and courage from its followers.

Norwegian Shooter said...

Thanks all. It is easy to get down on yourself for not living up to the powerfully hard example of Rev.s King and Lowery, but also remember that change begins inside you. Make a change in your heart and actions will come easier.