To day marks the twenty-fifth anniversary Martin Luther King Day becoming a national holiday. More importantly, it's the first time the holiday has been celebrated since Glenn Beck established himself as following in King's footsteps with his "Rally to Restore Honor". This really makes you think about all of the different people of all stripes who claim King as their own. Consider this:
Glenn Beck the paranoid anti-socialist nut-job is claiming to follow in the footsteps of the guy who said "There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism"!
For people who admit Glenn Beck's full of shit there's this bit of outrageousness. Martin Luther King the anti-Vietnam War activist who was hounded by the FBI, is compared by some, to Barack Obama, who instituted a military surge in Afghanistan and had the FBI raid anti-war activists homes in Minneapolis and Chicago!
King's niece, Alveda King, claim's that because she shares Martin Luther King's DNA, he would, like totally agree with her about gay marriage being as bad as genocide. The same Martin Luther King who began his activism under the tutelage of a gay Communist nightclub singer!
The guy who was shot while supporting a sanitation workers' strike, got his own holiday under a bill signed by Ronald Reagan!
And I, an atheist, think that Martin Luther King, a Christian, is a pretty cool guy!
I mean, how crazy is that?!
So I will do the right think and accept that King and I are not, like totally soul mates, while still respecting him as a pretty cool guy, who we can all learn a thing or two from. So let's take a look at said life, shall we?
As with most southern blacks at that time, King came from a family of sharecroppers. However, his father, Martin Luther King Sr. had become a Baptist minister after being inspired by their willingness to stand up for equal rights. King Jr. decided to follow in his father's footsteps, becoming a pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
For the Tea Party set, the religious stuff is all that matters. It's especially difficult to claim Martin Luther King as their own while at the same time willingly associating with civil rights opponent Rand Paul. But that doesn't mean they can't try. So they look for the one thing they have in common with the socialist, pro-union, anti-war activist and that is, in the words of Sarah Palin, "a solid rock foundation of faith in the one true God of justice."
It is true that King was a Baptist and used Christian teachings as a basis for his political activities. Do you know who else was a Baptist who used Christian teachings as a basis for his political activities? Strom Thurmond.
Most religious texts, for example, the Bible, are completely full of contradictions, and can be interpreted any way you please, so you can't really claim that the mere faith in the "one 'true' God" is what makes or breaks someone morally. Unless you're Sarah Palin, of course.
It wasn't religion that lead King him to be such an effective activist: it was organized religion. The black churches in the segregated south were one of the few places where black people could congregate freely. So when political tensions rose, that's where the discussions took place. These material conditions radicalized the black churches. But since the churches were organized on religious lines rather than political or class lines, it meant that the churches would eventually act as a break on the civil rights movement, coming into conflict with King himself.
When one looks closer at King's influences, one finds they include a lot more than mere Christianity. He got most of his ideas on political activism from Bayard Rustin, the aforementioned gay Communist nightclub singer.
Rustin was active in the Civil rights movement since the 30s. He was in the Communist Party, but broke with them when the party abandoned civil rights work during World War II as part of their "popular front" with Roosevelt and Churchill. After breaking with the Communist Party, Rustin joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, led by A.J. Muste, a former Trotskyist who led the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike to victory. Muste and Rustin became pacifists, trying to reconcile socialism with the nonviolent resistance tactics of Gandhi. This hodgepodge of ideas is what guided King.
I'll also go ahead and say that the whole nonviolence thing is somewhat overrated. Of course, violence should be avoided whenever possible. There's certainly no need for either militarism or bomb-throwing anarchists and terrorists. But Malcolm X and the Black Panthers did have a point when they argued that violence in self-defense is justified. I'd also say, that the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), formed in opposition to Kings Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) had a better take on nonviolent protest, seeing it as a tactical principle rather than a moral one. And I doubt most people would seriously oppose, say, the violence of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, or the protestors in Tiananmen Square.
But to King's credit, he stuck to his principles. From 1965 he began to speak out against the Vietnam War, at a time when anti-war sentiments weren't yet widespread. This brought King into conflict with other civil rights leaders who wanted to rely on support from Lyndon Johnson, the "best president the Black man ever had". In 1967, king made a famous anti-war speech at the New York Riverside Church, arguing "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death".
Many establishment types who were fine with King's non-violent resistance objected when King started also opposing violent suppression of resistance. For instance, Life magazine called King's speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi".
A lot of King's latter-day soul mates take this same attitude of opposing violent protest, but supporting violent suppression of protests. Since Martin Luther King Day was established, every president has carried out some sort of military campaign, from Nicaragua to Afghanistan. And yet they all claim to find inspiration in King's non-violence. Obama even won a Nobel Peace Prize.
But, once again, it's Glenn Beck who takes the cake in hypocrisy regarding non-violence. Last year, a Turkish flotilla was sending humanitarian aid, wheelchairs, food, medicine and the like, to Gaza. The Israeli government was trying to economically paralyze the entire population of Gaza as punishment for electing the wrong party. As a result, Israel sent a team of armed thugs to hijack the boats at gunpoint, resulting in the murder of nine humanitarian aid workers and the theft of the aid and the ships. The humanitarian aid workers didn't bring any weapons with them, so some of them grabbed sticks to disarm the gun-toting paratroopers. They then threw the ammunition overboard and gave medical treatment to the paratroopers for any accidental injuries they may have given them during their stick-attack.
But for Glenn Beck, their willingness to take up (gasp) sticks showed that the humanitarian aid workers cared about nothing but violence. Meanwhile the Israelis who were innocently hijacking a humanitarian aid ship at gunpoint, murdering the passengers and stealing the cargo, were totally peachy. While King's belief in non-violence might cause him to oppose the stick-on-hijacker violence, he certainly wouldn't agree with Beck's support for the hijackers themselves.
There's another aspect of King's belief in non-violent resistance that a lot of people overlook to. Namely, the resistance part. King may have lead non-violent protests, but they were big, disruptive and illegal. When he first came into prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he was seen as a radical alternative to the NAACP, who were trying to achieve civil rights by purely legal means. There was no respect for the rule of law, because the rule of law sucked.
In 1963, King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama for his civil disobedience campaign. In response to this, eight Birmingham pastors wrote a critique of King called "A Call for Unity", that argued against mass demonstrations and civil disobedience, while praising the Birmingham police for maintaining order. King responded to this with his famous "Letter From a Birmingham Jail".
In later years, he went even further. In his New York Riverside Church anti-war speech, he took up some fiery, even revolutionary, rhetoric:
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just."Suddenly Beck, Palin and Aveda King don't come off as the inheritors of King's legacy they claim to be. But Jon Stewart shouldn't get to cocky either. While I wasn't there when King gave this speech, I think it's safe to say he didn't use his inside voice.
Of course, it is important to recognize that King, like everyone, evolved over time.
In the early 1960s civil rights groups formed to the left of the SCLC, such as the SNCC and the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE), that organized sit-ins and freedom rides. While the SCLC tried to gain the favor with the Democrats, often calling off demonstrations as a sign of reasonableness, the SNCC and CORE were more interested on placing demands than requests.
The Democratic party at this time was trying to position itself as a champion of civil rights in the north while still maintaining racist single-party Jim Crow regimes in the south. When the civil rights movement came into conflict with those regimes, Kennedy and Johnson tried to get the movement to back down. Liberal messiah Bobby Kennedy called for a "cooling off period", to which CORE leader, James Farmer replied, "We've been cooling off for a hundred years. If we got any cooler, we'd be in deep freeze".
Furthermore, other figures, like Malcolm X, were taking on racism in the north, recognizing that the problem wasn't limited to Jim Crow. He also had some cooky nationalist ideas inherited from the Nation of Islam, but provided a pole of attraction for those who were alienated by the mainstream civil rights leadership. He also moved away from nationalism in a socialist direction after breaking with the Nation of Islam.
But going into the 1960s, King became further radicalized, heading in the same socialist direction. His criticism of the Vietnam War brought on the wrath of the Democratic party, with Lyndon Johnson claiming King's speech "had the same effect on [him] as if he had discovered that King had raped his daughter". Meanwhile, King was starting to feel the limits of the SCLC's strategy. This culminated when King was booed by radical youth on a tour of Chicago ghettoes, and realized he was becoming out of touch, saying:
"I went home that night with an ugly feeling . . . for twelve years I, and others like me had held out radiant promises of progress. Their hopes had soared. They were booing because they felt we were unable to deliver on our promises."
"The struggle" he said, "was in a different phase in which Negroes sought an end to economic exploitation and racism itself."
In 1968, King launched the Poor People's Campaign. It was still based on non-violent resistance, but instead of a pure civil rights campaign it was meant to be a "broad attack against class-based economic and social discrimination of which Negroes were the worst victims, but not the only victims", and would demand "the nationalization of vital industries, guaranteed income for impoverished Americans and an end to the slums". You know, the stuff that Glenn Beck hates.
And before Barack Obama gets too cocky, when King talked about "the nationalization of vital industries", he meant taking them under public ownership, not giving massive bail-outs to their CEOs.
Anyway, this campaign put strain between King and the rest of the SCLC. While King moved to the left, Bayard Rustin moved to the right, and resigned from the campaign. But most of them still went along with it, because King had enough prestige it was hard to turn down. The intended launching of the campaign was a Sanitation workers' strike in Memphis.
This is, of course, where King was assassinated. The leadership of the SCLC continued the campaign in his honor, but didn't know what to do with the Poor People's Campaign. King's official successor, Ralph Abernathy shifted his focus to things like protesting the moon landing and moved to the right to the point of endorsing Reagan in 1980.
Jesse Jackson led a split to the left, starting People United to Save Humanity (PUSH), which had some watered down versions of the Poor People's Campaign's demands. In the 80s Jackson rebranded PUSH as the Rainbow Coalition, which was focused on campaigning for Democratic politicians and occasionally boycotting companies that didn't hire enough black people.
It's hard to say what would have happened had King not been assassinated. There was talk of King running in the 1968 presidential election under the Peace and Freedom Party. King turned down the offer and Benjamin Spock ran instead, but it's possible that he would have reconsidered in 1972.
Maybe King would have moved even farther to the left and acted as a pole of attraction for the New Left. Maybe he would have moved to the right, like Rustin and Abernathy and Jackson and ended up supporting the Democrats.
It's even possible that he would have become a crazed right-wing libertarian paranoiac who was totally in love with Glenn Beck.
But probably not.