What would King learn from us?

This is a guest post by Echo Zen. Echo is a feminist filmmaker, animator and women’s health advocate, currently deployed in the States to counter the influence of Tea Party moppets. When ze’s not doing ad consulting for birth control, ze tries to blog semi-regularly for Feministe (partly to set a good example for zir sister).

An elementary school teacher told a story to me once. I was still struggling to learn English, so over the course of the year I asked her often to retell the story.

Years ago in Alabama, the wife of a young preacher received a delivery of red carnations from her husband. They were beautiful, but as she touched them, she noticed they were artificial. When her husband came home, she asked about the flowers. He said, “I wanted to give you something that you could always keep.”

Less than a month later, Martin Luther King Jr. fell to an assassin’s bullet in Tennessee. His Poor People’s March on Washington, which King had planned in support of striking workers in Memphis, ultimately reached its destination without him. But though a fragment of lead may have struck down King in his prime, it did not silence his dream, crystallised 5 years earlier on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Like those red carnations, King’s message endured, carried forth by former colleagues and allies – including his own wife, Coretta Scott King. Over the next 50 years, they fought against apartheid in South Africa, armed conflict abroad, and even bigotry against LGBT Americans here at home.

It’s prescient that King’s dream continues to reflect today’s most pressing issues, as his message of hope manifests through the work of those who’ve succeeded King’s generation. Today’s advocates are fighting to create paths to citizenship for undocumented students, reduce inequalities between poor and wealthy, and defend women’s access to healthcare to protect their lives and futures. Disparate as these ends may seem, we can be confident King would have supported these efforts – not because his colleagues believe he would have, but because he voiced such support in his own words.

Indeed, often we forget how far-reaching King’s vision was. Brave for his time, it would have made him a target of controversy even today. In speeches, King called for governments to invest in programs to guarantee incomes for poor Americans. He came to identify with Latino workers and struggling rural whites, and advocated on their behalf through his work. His doctrine of non-violence led him to oppose the Vietnam War, a stance that outraged fellow civil rights allies – including his most powerful, President Lyndon Johnson, who’d expected King’s support after signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And in his final days, King worked with organised labour to call for an economic bill of rights to protect the disadvantaged.

This is not the King many remember, especially in the face of appeals to forget about race or class and pretend differences don’t exist. Doubtlessly he would have wanted future generations to recall a far different message. Would King be disappointed to see how relevant his message still is today? Or was foresight what led King to speak so enduringly when he spoke of his dream in 1963?

In fact, King saw the intersectionality between race, poverty, violence and class, long before movements like Occupy Wall Street popularised the notion that economic despair affects all parts of society, not just housing projects or ghettos. That recognition formed the basis of his call, on those Lincoln Memorial steps, for opportunities and rights to be made available to all – hence the name of his march that day, the March to Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

We neglect those last 4 words when we refer simply to a “March on Washington.” And we neglect the real themes of King’s dream when we quote only the snatches that modern pundits have twisted to argue that King wanted a colour-blind society: “they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Perhaps the true threat to King’s legacy is not that we forget his message, but oversimplify it. Without the context of King’s values, we may be led to believe King would have opposed programs to help poor blacks out of poverty because he wanted to avoid focusing on divisions, or that promoting diversity in higher education is wrong because he would have wanted us to think of ourselves only as Americans.

Were he here today, King would have had none of that. And if he could reach back to 1963 with an amended message for that generation, the underpinning of that message would remain the same – but with even greater emphasis on the need for fundamental societal change, to preempt insinuations that he simply wanted a change in the hearts of oppressors, then or now.

If King could bring our generation’s knowledge to 1963, perhaps he would have been tempted to voice bitterness at how a country united could continue to be a nation of contradictions – where the son of an African immigrant and a single mother from Kansas could one day became President, but where someone who shoots an unarmed teenager wearing a hoodie could be lauded by bigots as a defender of law and order.

But even knowing the cultural amnesia that would come to distress his legacy, King would have wanted to communicate above all a message of hope, as he did at the Lincoln Memorial. And ultimately he would have underlined his message with an exhortation sometimes lost even on our best lawmakers: People are the reason we advocate. All the talk in the world about fiscal cliffs, deficits and debt ceilings only masks the reality of human suffering, which eventually drove a preacher who’d never held office to reshape the world.

King believed in serving the underserved, feeding the poor, and assisting the sick. This was his message, one that will endure in relevance for decades to come. My elementary teacher, who’d hoped to impress this on us when we were young, didn’t live to see her students maturing into the advocates we are today. But we’ll impart this message to those who succeed us, and those yet to be.

We do this in her memory, and King’s.


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51 Responses to What would King learn from us?

  1. Lovely article, Echo. Thank you.

  2. moviemaedchen says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  3. King was the figurehead and largely responsible for the credit. But let’s also understand the decades and decades of activism by people of all colors that made Martin Luther King, Jr. possible.

    White liberals and their money often drove Civil Rights. They had sense enough to keep to the shadows, but if a major segment of white society hadn’t wanted Civil Rights, it would have never happened. And that drives today’s social issues as well.

    • Yes. How dare we make Martin Luther King Day about Martin Luther King when there were real white people who were involved with him! Clearly we must reorient all our words to be about the white people here.

    • EG says:

      I really cannot fucking believe that your comment about the civil rights movement is not “let’s not forget the generations of black community organizing and activism that made the actions of the 1950s and 1960s possible,” but instead is “let’s not forget the white people.” Are you fucking serious?

      I have long thought that instead of–no, alongside of–a holiday for King, we should have a holiday honoring the civil rights movement itself, a day to celebrate those still living (Bob Moses, who, in my father’s words, is probably as close to a saint as I’ll ever believe in), those who gave their lives (Medgar Evers) and the things that were bigger than any individual.

      But I’ve never thought “You know who doesn’t get enough credit for the Civil Rights movement? White people!”

    • gratuitous_violet says:

      Thank you both. I wanted to eloquently point out how wildly inappropriate a “What about the whites?” comment was on this particular post but all I could muster was a jaded cackle.

      And it’s this kind of crap that makes my job teaching US history so goddamn hard, from the honky-centric textbooks to the inevitable “When is White History Month, huh?” cracks. (I was especially amused to get that question once just a three weeks into a “World” history class, and I thought, “Didn’t we just spend a month discussing the Enlightenment?”)

      • Donna L says:

        White liberals and their money . . . .They had sense enough to keep to the shadows,

        Not only is Comrade Kevin’s comment wildly inappropriate, but he also manages to make it come across as vaguely anti-Semitic. Way to go with the stereotyping.

      • EG says:

        Yes, well, Jews, we’re sneaky like that. Plenty of money of course, but it’s not like we’d do anything that required bravery–cough*MickeySchwerner*cough.

    • Are you kidding me with this comment.

      You actually came into a thread about Martin Luther King Jr, on Martin Luther King Jr. DAY, to remind us all that if it weren’t for white people the civil rights movement wouldn’t have gotten so far and OH MY GOD, I literally cannot believe you did this.

  4. Foxy says:

    Lets not forget the role communist party played in civil rights movement.Unfortunately their involvement was erased by the establishment

    • At this point I think most of us hear your comments like when the adults talk in Charlie Brown.

      • Foxy says:

        It is written in simple english.Any how some of my family are marxists.They are obviously angry that the role played by communists in civil rights movement is not remembered appropriately

      • Yonah says:

        On “they are obviously angry”… my parents gave me a copy of the Communist Manifesto when I was in grade 8 (I had the whole first chapter memorised! not at their demand although it was a good party trick) followed by my father’s seriously annotated and well-worn Das Kapital. You know what my parents weren’t angry about? People not giving communists/socialists/marxists/et al enough credit for Black people’s accomplishments. You know what they are actually angry about? Oh I don’t know… RACISM?

        It actually blows my mind that someone’s first thought about the civil rights movement could be a sense of bitterness that others aren’t giving them a little trophy for the actions of a semi-related struggle, as opposed to like happiness and relief that things have progressed (in as much as they have) and anger and drive to fix the things which still need to be fixed.

        What kind of people sit back and whine that Black people writ large get all the credit for civil rights, as opposed to their own particular political group?

      • Li says:

        Don’t worry Foxy. I’ve called “the establishment” and they’re printing your family members out some Good White Person certificates as we speak.

      • Bagelsan says:

        Li, were those made in MS Word or did you go for the super fancy ones made in Paint? :D

      • EG says:

        I was brought up by Marxists as well (hi, Yonah!), and nope, they weren’t angry that Communists weren’t given credit–they were angry about racism and about how black people weren’t given enough credit for ongoing bravery and resilience in the face of devastating attacks and terrifying odds. Because my parents weren’t self-centered shits obsessed with appropriating other people’s struggles and achievements.

    • hotpot says:

      A big part of the role the communists played in civil rights was postwar, indirect and self-serving. The elites were afraid that colored people in Africa and Asia were going to turn towards communism after overthrowing imperialism and that this would improve the strategic position of the Soviet Union vis-a-vis their own. Hence there was a great geopolitical reason to accommodate the civil rights movement. The Soviets did not support civil rights in the West out of the goodness of their hearts. They were going to use it for propaganda. In turn, a lot of the white establishment was desperate for a black civil rights leader they could work with. That is one reason why Martin Luther King. Jr. was so important to them.

      • EG says:

        Whoa, “colored people”?

        Much as I bear no love for the CP, I don’t really see the relevance of this comment–very few political parties do anything “out of the goodness of their hearts,” and the fact is that racial equality is part of the Marxist philosophy. Of course they were using it for propaganda–racism was and is one of the greatest shames of the US! International and national humiliation is one of the great pressures the Civil Rights Movement brought to bear on the US.

        And don’t underestimate how threatening MLK Jr. was to the white establishment. He’s remembered as being cuddly and friendly now, but he really was not perceived as something the white establishment could “work with” then.

      • Bagelsan says:

        I highly doubt that MLK was anywhere near as cuddly as Obama is, and just think of the absolute fits the white establishment has about him. You really can’t be cuddly enough as a black man for some (many? most?) white people not to lose their shit.

      • hotpot says:

        The point is the Communist Party had little direct role in the postwar civil rights movement, even if it had a large indirect role. Gender equality is part of the Marxist philosophy too, but the Soviet Union was still a patriarchy. Anti-imperialism was part of the Marxist philosophy, but the Soviet Union still dominated Eastern Europe in an imperialist fashion. The Soviets’ use of propaganda against civil rights abuses was motivated by a desire to gain power in the third world, not help the position of US blacks. They would have preferred that the US government resisted Martin Luther King Jr.

        MLK Jr. made the cover of TIME Magazine in 1963. A US presidential candidate called him in his jail cell in 1960. His legislation overwhelmingly passed Congress in 1964, 1965 and 1968. He was the right man, at the right time, for both civil rights and the (moderate) establishment. Yeah, the FBI was investigating him as they would any left-wing political leader, but fundamentally what they were most afraid of was that he was working for the Soviets.

      • MLK Jr. made the cover of TIME Magazine in 1963. A US presidential candidate called him in his jail cell in 1960. His legislation overwhelmingly passed Congress in 1964, 1965 and 1968. He was the right man, at the right time, for both civil rights and the (moderate) establishment.

        Yes, well, here’s a thing I’m going to tell you that’ll blow your mind: sometimes us “coloured people” manage to become powerful and charismatic and even win fancy prizes, despite the fact that the white establishment hates us! And, uh, you don’t get to decide that a fancy prize or a presidential visit means people were all cuddly puppies with someone. To return to south Asia for examples, Gandhi visited the King of England. Gandhi’s proposed legislations were repeatedly enforced by an overwhelmingly white judiciary. This doesn’t mean the imperialist government he was working against loved him!

      • EG says:

        They would have preferred that the US government resisted Martin Luther King Jr.

        Why the conditional tense? The US government did resist MLK Jr.

        As for your denotations of the USSR’s hypocrisies…yes? Relevance? The issue wasn’t whether or not the USSR was the purest country that ever existed; it’s whether it supported civil rights in the US for purely selfish reasons or whether there was also an ideological basis for doing so.

        Otherwise, pretty much everything Mac said. Sometimes, the white establishment is forced to work with non-white people they find threatening.

        And the FBI wasn’t “investigating” King; they were doing their damnedest to destroy him, including recording his encounters with other women and sending them to his wfie.

      • The Soviets’ use of propaganda against civil rights abuses was motivated by a desire to gain power in the third world, not help the position of US blacks.

        Really? Because when Chinese troops were halfway through India, and the US was sitting on its ass and smirking about it, the Soviets were the only ones who gave sufficient shits to help us, you know, not be invaded and colonised all over fucking again. Half the reason India still allies so closely with Russia is the fact that they were the only ones willing to help us out, while we were still among the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement by the fucking way.

        And now I’m adding “third world” to “coloured people” on your fascinating list of interesting terms. Well done. Many pats.

      • hotpot says:

        @macavity I never said the established loved MLK Jr., I said he was important to them. He was someone they could use to let out the steam of the civil rights movement while doing their best to contain any revolutionary implications and, by all extents, they succeeded. In turn, he used them to get civil rights legislation passed and improve the situation of blacks in this country. That doesn’t mean that the establishment didn’t try to damage his effectiveness as a civil rights leader, I think they did feel threatened by him, they may have even hated him. But they were less threatened by him because he was willing to work within the system, and ultimately their fears that he was working for the communists proved unfounded.

        it’s whether it supported civil rights in the US for purely selfish reasons or whether there was also an ideological basis for doing so.

        It was for purely selfish reasons. That’s the point– I don’t think people should get credit for something that just came about because they were acting in their self-interest.

        Sometimes, the white establishment is forced to work with non-white people they find threatening.

        That’s my point.

        Half the reason India still allies so closely with Russia is the fact that they were the only ones willing to help us out, while we were still among the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement by the fucking way.

        There are also natural geographic reasons for this. Russia doesn’t share a border with India, so the two countries don’t threaten each other. Meanwhile, both countries share a larger border with China. The same reason US moves closer to India when it feels threatened by China… Geopolitics.

      • EG says:

        It was for purely selfish reasons. That’s the point– I don’t think people should get credit for something that just came about because they were acting in their self-interest.

        You haven’t demonstrated that at all. All that you’ve demonstrated is that the USSR also was able to turn the US’s hideous racism to its advantage. The two things are not mutually exclusive. You seem to be taking the adolescent position that unless something is completely self-sacrificing and 100% altruistic, it is utterly tainted and self-serving. Real life is more complex than that.

      • EG says:

        As for containing the revolutionary implications–no. As noted above, King was taking up causes of class and international suffering when he was gunned down. If anything, he was becoming more revolutionary, not less.

      • EG says:

        Not, by the way, that I wish to imply that anti-racism is not sufficiently revolutionary, particularly in the US. Just that King was expanding his revolutionary purview, not contracting it.

      • The elites were afraid that colored people in Africa and Asia were going to turn towards communism after overthrowing imperialism and that this would improve the strategic position of the Soviet Union vis-a-vis their own.

        Wow, uh, seriously, you really are incapable of talking about anyone not white without generalising or being offensive, huh? Coloured people indeed.

        Hence there was a great geopolitical reason to accommodate the civil rights movement.

        Doesn’t follow. Sorry. Seriously doesn’t follow. I can’t speak for regions not South Asia, but the US wasn’t accommodating any civil rights movement to stop us running to the Soviets for aid. If anything, they were perfectly content to let India get invaded by China, for the Bangladeshis to get slaughtered and oppressed by literally everybody, and for the Pakistanis to lose any shot they had at not becoming a military fundie “republic”. All of which holes, btw, desis are having to dig ourselves out of even today. The US government wasn’t interested in civil rights movements to stop “us coloured people” (again, wtf) from becoming communists; the US government wasn’t interested in civil rights movements at all. That was black people, other POC and white liberals.

        Oh, and by the way, the assertion that the “white establishment” wanted to work with MLK is fucking hilarious to me, and I’m not even an expert on US history or anything. They hated his guts, ffs.

      • hotpot says:

        The Kennedy administration actually did approve military aid to India, but their muted response to the Indo-China war was due in large part to it coinciding with the Cuban missile crisis. Otherwise both superpowers and most countries around the world were more sympathetic to the Indian side. But I agree the United States did not go aggressively after an Indian alliance. The ultimate reason for this may have been the Sino-Soviet split. If China had allowed the Soviets to use its ports as naval bases as Khruschev had proposed, the US almost surely would have countered by courting India more aggressively. Instead, the US backed Pakistan because the Soviets were backing India. That is why Nixon supported Pakistan in the 1971 war. It was all Cold War politics.

        the US government wasn’t interested in civil rights movements at all. That was black people, other POC and white liberals.

        That’s my point. It was done to a larger degree than recognized out of self-interest.

        the assertion that the “white establishment” wanted to work with MLK is fucking hilarious to me

        Lyndon Johnson was not part of the white establishment?

      • Donna L says:

        the US government wasn’t interested in civil rights movements at all. That was black people, other POC and white liberals.

        Hotpot is correct about at least one thing: in order for that statement to be true, you would have to take the position that Lyndon Johnson — and even Eisenhower at times — were not part of the US government. There was more to the US government than J. Edgar Hoover.

      • Lyndon Johnson was not part of the white establishment?

        -_- FOr crying out loud, you can’t tell the difference between one person and a general group? I guess the British loved and petted India, then, because Warren Hastings was a nice guy and Mountbatten believed they needed to leave India. Seriously, your argument – that much of the sense-making.

        You’re also still failing to prove your point that the Soviets’ aid to assorted developing nations in the global south was not at all about ideology. I mean, sure, yes, naturally, they had an eye to advantage, but if you’re going to assert that they had absolutely no interest in helping nations that didn’t offer them strategic advantage, you’re not doing very well here.

      • hotpot says:

        @macavity, EG

        You two think the Soviets really gave a rats ass about US blacks in the south? Take off the rose colored glasses. The Soviets never batted an eye about trampling on human rights in general. Whether it was their own people, the people of Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, or the people they screwed over when they signed the Molotov Ribbentrop pact. Khruschev didn’t give a crap about Jim Crow. Neither side in the Cold War was morally superior to the other. It was just an accident of history that world politics being split into two roughly equal camps helped people of color gain some strategic leverage in the struggle against oppression.

      • hotpot says:

        And just to be clear, I’m not saying this was the major factor, or even one of the most important, in the US civil rights movement– any more than independence movements in India, China, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, or Algeria were. But all these things were in the background and they played a heavy role on the philosophies, psychology and calculations of the main players. It probably helped move things along a bit quicker.

      • You two think the Soviets really gave a rats ass about US blacks in the south?

        I love how “India” turns into “US blacks in the south”. Um, I was talking about the GLOBAL south. Point me to where I said word one about what the Soviets thought about black people in the US! Or anything but their actions in my own corner of the world!

        Neither side in the Cold War was morally superior to the other.

        Saying “The Soviets they had racial equality as a stated tenet” isn’t saying it was morally superior in all things, wtf?

      • hotpot says:

        mac,

        The Soviets helped India out of altruism and not to gain advantage/influence? I’m skeptical, but you probably know more about this than I do.

      • tigtog says:

        A habit of putting words (like ‘altruism’) into other commentors’ mouths tends to make my permamod finger twitchy. Just sayin’.

      • hotpot says:

        [Moderator note: comment content redacted. This derail is now officially over]

  5. Anonymous says:

    Just started watching your movies, and I’m a fan already.

  6. Foxy says:

    @yonah,your comment does not make any sense.Communist party is the only group which consistently fought for civil rights and it doesnt get its due.

    • Yonah says:

      I’m too worried some of the posters here will try to get it signed by a POC (if they actually know any). “If you could just sign here to acknowledge I’m basically the reason for any civil rights you may have, that would be grreattt…”

  7. a lawyer says:

    Good post.

    One of the ways that people put spin on King was to deliberately avoid emphasizing his more militant and oppositionist aspects, and push the “broad social justice for everyone” aspect.

    So you see a lot of folks quoting “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

    But not many people quote “…those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

    even though it’s part of the same speech.

    It was a viable strategy because it was useful to obtain followers who might not have bought into other public portrayals. But it caused problems insofar as the King that most white folks think they “know about” was much more of a political creation than a real person.

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