Monday, January 16, 2017

The complex philosophies of MLK

Part of what makes Martin Luther King, Jr. such a fascinating figure is how he has been interpreted in so many different ways. Over the years, his quotes have been used—and misused—to promote completely opposite agendas. This isn’t because he contradicted himself; he didn’t. Rather, it’s because his ideas are more complex than many understand. They’re used in a similar manner to religious scripture. It is ironic, and very harmful, when a white person thinks they can claim ownership over his philosophies and tries to use him to discourage black activists.

These are some of my favorite quotes of his, all of which are frequently cited to argue he believed in one thing—and then referenced by others to claim he believed the opposite.

There are people (mainly white social conservatives) who will claim King believed in “colorblindness” and thought that distinct races should not be recognized or delineated, that race shouldn’t even be addressed. They cite this quote of his: “I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians, or any other distinctions.”

But when that quote is used to support a “colorblind” perspective, let’s remember that MLK also said this: “I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort where we overlap.” (Audre Lorde, a black socialist feminist philosopher, later elaborated on this sentiment when she said it is not our differences that divide us, but our failure to celebrate those differences.)

There are people who emphasize MLK’s pacifism with these quotes:

“We must learn to live together as brothers, or we are going to perish together as fools.”

“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

And yes, King was anti-violence. Unfortunately, too many white people who are opposed to Black Lives Matter and other pro-black movements will use those quotes to say those groups should stop addressing racism. They label every protest a riot and mistake pacifism for passiveness. MLK never said people should accept abuse with a smile, nor that hating one’s oppressors is just as bad as the oppression itself.

In fact, he said: “But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

He received a lot of hate for that statement.

There are those who will argue he was a moderate because of his stance on nonviolence. However, nonviolence doesn’t mean he supported a “middle ground” or refused to take sides. In that regard, this is what he said:

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’, who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Interestingly, the vlogger Kat Blaque made a video in which she recited that quote, and a commenter then called her a hateful extremist. She replied that it wasn’t her quote; it was something said by Dr. King.

Along the same vein is this statement from MLK: “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be…The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

Some will claim King was a capitalist because he said, “Communism forgets that life is individual.” But, within context, this is the complete quote: “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor in the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis.”

Some say MLK was a feminist because he famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But he never called himself a feminist. Ella Baker, a high profile Civil Rights activist of the ‘60s, left the Southern Christian Leadership Conference because King didn’t want women to be leaders within it. However, he did support women being ordained as ministers, which was unusual at the time. As wonderful as King was in regards to racial justice, he didn’t address gender equality in all the ways he could have. He wasn’t perfect. But his wife, Coretta Scott King, spoke at feminist conferences and later supported gay rights.

There are conservatives who argue that MLK was against affirmative action because he said he wanted his children to be judged by the content of their character. But he also said, “Society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.”

So Martin Luther King was a very intriguing thinker and activist. He said things that people on both the right and the far left would disagree with, as well as agree with. Much of his approach was inspired by liberal Christianity. Try as many might, he can’t fit into a specific box. This is because his specialty was in breaking down barriers, whether they be boxes or red tape or walls. And, although he is no longer living, I believe he can still break down any wall that an infamous leader may want to build today.