Every Day Must Be Martin Luther King Day*

Posted on January 21, 2013


Originally published on MLK Day in 2010. I will publish my latest remarks later on today. 

I thought I would repost my latest MLK Day piece with this robust conversation about King’s legacy and Glenn Beck’s demonstration occurring. More thoughts about all of this are possibly forthcoming…

There is little doubt that Martin Luther King Day has been one of my favorite holidays over the last decade. It is one of the few holidays where Americans from all backgrounds are encouraged to participate in community service projects, attend events, and engage in critical personal reflection about what they have done to improve their communities. This is also a day when we learn the most about King’s legacy in very creative ways. Besides the customary news segments, I have awaken to a variety of tweets, blogs, and Facebook statuses urging us to remember King’s vision for a just society. This is great. However, I want to suggest that, if we want to really fulfill King’s “Dream,” we have to remember the tumultuous dreams that were expressed at the end of his life, not just a couple of lines from his “I Have a Dream” speech, or the colorblind ideals that he expressed. This means we will have to continue to ask the tough questions about society and confront the very ideals that we hold dear.

In the midst of the Vietnam War, the shortcomings of the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of Black Power, and the deepening of poverty, King suggested that Americans needed to undergo a revolution of values. He advanced arguments in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? and his last speeches that would drive today’s conservatives and liberals to probably brand him a “progressive wingnut.” King suggested that any economic system that “produces beggars needs restructuring.” His disdain about our preoccupations with individual wealth also led him to include materialism in his infamous triplets wreaking havoc on American society and culture—“materialism, militarism, and racism.” He recommended that we “begin the shift from a ‘thing’-oriented society to a ‘person’-oriented society.” King urged us to finally place people over profits. He also detached human rights from property rights (many conservatives conflate the two) and advocated for Americans to walk away from the reigning private property regime. Regarding capitalism and communism, King argued that we needed to go beyond both in order to establish a just society. Although many Americans have come to believe that King represents something to all of us, he clearly challenged everyone to go transcend their ideological loyalties. We have to go beyond the usual political categories, the celebratory mass text messages, and the great tweets and Facebook statuses – we all must become visionaries.

King also challenged us to reconsider our beliefs in national identity and how America should interact in the world. King advocated for the construction of the “World House” instead of the “empire of liberty.” In Where Do We Go From Here, he contended that “our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional” and that “this call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men.” Now, one should also pay attention to the context in which he makes this statement. King did not mean that Americans should “forget” or look past their national, sectional, and racial identities through a “colorblind” (or even “post-racial”) lens. Even though King disagreed with some aspects of the movement, he validated certain positive features of Black Power and he maintained that, before we could “go beyond” race, we must work out our racial differences and come to grips with our tortured history—two requirements that the American people still struggle with.

King’s views on American foreign policy also remain controversial. He branded the United States government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” when he delivered “Beyond Vietnam” in April 1967. King suggested that America devote more of its resources toward addressing global poverty, which would be to the consternation of many Republicans and Democrats who take joy in beating the war drum. But his call for America to lead the world in combating poverty also came with a disclaimer against what we would probably consider neoliberalism. King argued that any aid should “not be used by the wealthy nations as a surreptitious means to control the poor nations.” He declared that “money devoid of genuine empathy is like salt devoid of savor, good for nothing except to be trodden under foot of men.” In other words, America’s (we can add the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as well) current model of distributing aid is usually laden with ideologically-charged requirements such as the promotion of abstinence as a precursor for AIDS funding or requirements that often put heads of state in the unenviable position of having to devote more of their nation’s natural resources to paying off international debt. Aid is not aid if it promotes ideology, whether it’s “democracy,” free markets, or abstinence. King may call that “a new form of paternalism and neo-colonialism that no self-respecting nation could accept.” Hopefully President Obama will take heed to these words when he determines America’s future role in Haiti’s development.

We should also take note on how Martin Luther King tapped into a longer style of Black Leadership where one served as the conscience of Presidents and the nation like Fredrick Douglass. Unlike many of the so-called black leaders who followed, King was neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Even though a white Democrat would sign both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, King did not believe that he owed the Democrats his patience and loyalty. We should carry ourselves in the same manner. It was shameful to engage others in debates about health care reform because many others seemed more interested in kowtowing to a minority of Americans indifferent to the trials and suffering of millions because the present bill was “better” than what we had before. It was also disappointing to hear liberals chastise and demean progressives for having high expectations and pushing the President and Congress to live up to their campaign promises. King cared more about justice than political expediency or winning elections. It’s safe to say that King would not have quit his protest efforts if a Republican were President, or if conservatives controlled Congress. King sought to create political opportunities through popular agitation; he did not wait until more Americans became more favorable towards civil rights or “turned” liberal. We need to create more political opportunities by continuing our political organizing and engaging the public. We also need more positive and offensive thrusts for fundamental change, not defensive reform. Instead of serving as cheerleaders for Democrats and Obama, we need to do the less glamorous job of serving as the conscience of a nation. Like Lani Guiner and Gerald Torres wrote about the people of color in America in their book, The Miner’s Canary, each of us represents the miner’s canary. We have to put ourselves in position to say that the Democrats, nor the American people, will live to see the light of day if they forsake us.

So, how do we live up to King’s tall orders? Well, that would take a whole book to explain, but I believe that it is important to offer a few suggestions. First, we have to continue our political organizing efforts and agitation. There is a constellation of local, regional, and national organizations (and individual activists) who remain engaged in the fight for environmental justice, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist politics, antiracist organizing, etc. I may suggest that all of us who are active should seek means to link ourselves together as much as possible, whether it is through larger conferences like the US/Global Social Forums, or via the internet like the ZCommunications activist community. I believe that both the constellation of the various social forums, national organizations like the resurgent Students for a Democratic Society, Jobs for Justice, and what I would consider the cyber commons, represent the best efforts of establishing a “World House.”

But there is still much mind/intellectual, cultural, and political work that needs to be done. The “private” has reigned as the intellectual and organizing idea of Democrats, Republicans, and capital over the last thirty years. This overemphasis on the private has encouraged Americans from all socioeconomic, racial, and political backgrounds to emphasize “free markets,” profits, property, corporatization, individualism, and citizenship based narrowly on “taxation.” The reign of the private has also led Americans to castigate any and every public institution serving the common good, whether it’s our public school system, Social Security, or even our universities. As King would propose dialectically, we must rethink, reclaim, and reconcile both the “private” and the “public.” We must recreate common spaces where people can enjoy themselves, where ALL of our children can receive an outstanding education, where workers in all areas can control their working conditions.

We also must move towards transforming American democracy. Our current definitions of citizenship are too narrow to be considered as democratic. It seems that the only “deserving” citizens are those individuals who claim to be “God-fearing taxpayers” or the corporations and “small businesses” who “give” us jobs (that sounds kind of feudal, doesn’t it?). And thus, they are the only ones who should reap the benefits from public policy. This logic supposes that they should be the ones to determine the course of the nation. We tend to forget that citizenship includes a social component, one that forces us to govern ourselves beyond our own individual concerns. Our definition of citizenship should reflect our responsibilities toward other human beings, not just our checkbooks, wallets, religious faiths, political parties, or our employers. Citizenship must always be bent toward securing justice and not just defending what’s “ours” (rights, finances, property, privilege). That means, for example, any person should be allowed to marry another. People from LGBTQ circles, those not native to this country, and those who have paid their debts to society should all be able to enjoy the sweet fruits of citizenship, not the bitter nectar of discrimination and ostracism.

We all must reconsider our notions of democracy and seek to practice what scholar J. Phillip Thompson III calls “deep democracy.” I wonder if, at times, democracy only works for some of us if we win, or if it is practiced among our small groups, or for other leftist groups who only seek to cannibalize others. We need to continue the various methods of linking the multitude of organizations and movements together—social forum, local, regional, and national MDS/SDS, as examples—and continuing to develop more just and equitable means of collective decision making. It is difficult to advocate for democracy if we are unwilling to practice it within our own organizations and amongst people with whom we disagree. The point of democracy is to bring our distinct experiences to bear on a common political system and to talk across difference, take ownership of institutions, and make decisions with others who are different from us for the common good (as the most broadly defined). This is the meaning of practicing deep democracy.

Ultimately, we have to bend all of our actions toward achieving justice and rebuilding society. Unfortunately, this cannot be done in one day, one year, or during one or two Presidential terms. Building the World House is a multi-generational project. Therefore, we have to extend the Martin Luther King Day holiday beyond the day itself. The only way to properly honor Dr. King would be to make every day Martin Luther King Day.

*I gathered King’s quotations from his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? and his speeches, “A Time to Break the Silence” and “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” found in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.