American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Justice is What Love Sounds Like: The Legacy of
Arnie Alpert is New Hampshire Program Coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee.
When the third Monday in January rolls around, TV and radio stations will dust off their tapes, now thirty-seven years old. There will be Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lincoln Memorial, reciting a few lines of the "I Have a Dream" speech describing the now-familiar vision of black and white children playing together and judged by the content of their characters. Those born since King's death may be forgiven if all they know of King is that he was a great civil rights leader because he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, gave a famous speech at the March on Washington, and was assassinated.
Despite the national holiday in his name, or perhaps because of it, Martin Luther King, Jr. has almost been reduced to an "I Have a Dream" icon, what Vincent Harding calls a "gentle, non-abrasive hero whose recorded speeches can be used as inspirational resources for rocking our memories to sleep." But if King's image is so safe it can be used to peddle airlines, soft drinks, and software, why did it take New Hampshire twenty years of legislative battles to accept a holiday named for him? And why, when Governor Jeanne Shaheen signed the holiday bill into law before hundreds of cheering, singing celebrants on the State House lawn in 1999, did a lone John Birch Society protester hold up a sign that said, "MLK WAS A COMMUNIST"? How can one historic figure play so many conflicting roles? And, when the words of "I Have a Dream" sound anything but radical, is it worth struggling for King's legacy at all? Some recent books can help us find our way through history to the justice struggles of our own time.
For those too young to remember, it may be hard to understand the fears and hostility aroused by the African American freedom movement. The 1963 March on Washington, now commemorated as a peaceful and patriotic event, is a good place to start. "Dominant expectations ran from paternal apprehension to dread," writes Taylor Branch of the mood in the nation's capital in the days before the march. Reporters on Meet the Press suggested "it would be impossible to bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly rioting." The Pentagon mustered 19,000 troops just in case.
That the march was successful in mobilizing hundreds of thousands and reaching millions more with the civil rights message inspired even more fear and hatred among the defenders of the status quo. The FBI stepped up efforts "aimed at neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader," as a Bureau document put it a couple of months later. "We are most interested in exposing him in some manner or another in order to discredit him," announced the agenda for an FBI planning meeting held in Atlanta, December 23, 1963. In addition to planting agents in King's organization, tapping his phone, and bugging his hotel rooms, the FBI went so far as to send King a message encouraging him to commit suicide. On at least one occasion, the FBI refused to warn King of death threats against him.
By 1967, King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference were even on the FBI's list of "the most violent and radical groups and their leaders." The Bureau termed the nonviolent SCLC a "Black Nationalist Hate Group," and re-affirmed its intent to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize" the group and its leader.
Michael Eric Dyson, author of I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr., (New York: The Free Press, 2000) is not surprised by the virulence of the FBI's opposition to King, or the resistance of right wingers like Senator Jesse Helms to the establishment of the national King holiday. "King was not the 'commie' subversive that Hoover made him out to be. Neither was he, as Helms supposed, an ideological zealot of Soviet Marxism. Still, a strong case can be made that, in his last three years, King was indeed the most dangerous black leader in America as he redreamed his dream, changed his mind about race, and linked the civil rights and peace movements."
Dyson's mission is to save the radical King from the whitewashers who have sought to make him "the poster boy for Safe Negro Leadership." Dyson describes a shift in King's approach from the nonviolent passive resistance of the Montgomery bus boycott to the "aggressive nonviolence" of the Poor People's Campaign, from the nonviolent persuasion of the March on Washington to the nonviolent coercion of mass civil disobedience. The tactical shift accompanied King's recognition that most whites were racists, conscious or unconscious, and that "there has never been any single, solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans--to genuine equality for Negroes."
The shift coincided with King's vocal opposition to the US war in Vietnam. And the new tactics went along with a frontal challenge to the economic structures that kept so many blacks--and whites--in poverty. In his last years, Dyson explains, King began to quietly question capitalism.
Dyson's view resonates with that of Vincent Harding in Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (New York: Orbis, 1996). Harding suggests that an America in which the US Marine Band can play "We Shall Overcome" in the Capitol rotunda while a bust of King is unveiled must be suffering from amnesia. As Harding expresses in a powerful set of essays, it is in overcoming that amnesia about King that we can take on King's challenge to unleash the power of love against the evils of racism and war.
Where Dyson goes beyond Harding is in his critical consideration of the breadth of King's legacy. Comfortable with popular culture and theology as well as history, Dyson journeys through such topics as King's relationship to black nationalism, the "radical remnant" within the black church, and King's links to hip hop culture.
Dyson insists we need not--and must not--idolize King, and delves into controversies surrounding charges that King plagiarized his doctoral dissertation, King's patriarchal views and sexual escapades, his relationship with his wife, the battles around the commercialization of King's image, and his family's efforts to control the use of his words.
Dyson's critical stance contrasts with the valuable, but somewhat odd Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998), patched together by Clayborne Carson from scraps of King's speeches, sermons, articles, letters, and books. Thus we have a first person narrative that takes us from King's childhood and schooling through the Montgomery, Albany, Birmingham, and Selma campaigns all the way to Memphis. The result is a readable narrative that lets us in on King as scholar, theologian, family man, preacher, planner, and activist leader. (Most of the same material is also covered in a set of audio tapes, which like the Autobiography comes from the King family's partnership with Time Warner.)
Each chapter of the Autobiography comes with notes on sources, but without footnotes for particular passages. Readers encounter King's words without indications of whether they were written contemporaneously with the events they describe or spoken ten years later. We are left with an odd sense of time, as if it were a snapshot and a moving picture at the same time.
What we do get is a sense of consistency from the early King to his later years. We realize that the concern for economic justice which focused his last campaigns did not emerge late in his life. It was in seminary, studying the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch, that King concluded "any religion that professes concern for the souls of men and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried." We find references to the danger of nuclear war in King's very first sermon as minister at Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and recognize that the seeds of King's concern about war and peace were planted well before his Nobel Prize or the escalation of the war in Vietnam.
We see King learning, early in his public career, that nonviolence works by compelling adversaries to change, not by appealing to their good will. "I had believed the privileged would give up their privileges on request," King commented about a failed negotiation early in the bus boycott. "I came to see that no one gives up his privileges without strong resistance. I saw further that the underlying purpose of segregation was to oppress and exploit the segregated, not simply to keep them apart."
Perhaps what Dyson calls King's "dramatic change of heart" in his later years was not so dramatic after all. As early as 1956, in a sermon at his church in Montgomery, King preached that "the misuse of capitalism can... also lead to tragic exploitation." This remarkable sermon, "Paul's Letter to American Christians," is reprinted with ten others in A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., (Clayborne Carson, editor, New York: Warner, 1998), another product of the partnership between the King family, the King Papers Project (directed by Clayborne Carson), and Time Warner. "They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth," King imagines the apostle Paul telling the Alabama congregation. "I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth."
It is that voice of prophetic insight that makes King so powerful and relevant to this day, and that voice which can still be raised up from amidst the "I Have a Dream" sound-bites. "King was the defining figure of his age," insists Dyson, regardless of how his image is distorted. "We should neither be ashamed to celebrate his greatness nor afraid to point to his limitations, taking them both into consideration as we figure out how to use the King holiday better to serve the cause of justice for which King died."
"Like King," Dyson says, "we should translate our beliefs about love into concrete action. Justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public."