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King, the man and the day

I find myself torn, this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, between wanting to write about the Reverend Doctor King and wanting to write about other people. It drives me crazy that people collapse the movement into one man—a man who would be the first to talk about the other great and little men and women who contributed to the Civil Rights movement in this country. It was predictable that the creation of a national holiday to remember one leader would be the excuse for forgetting all the others. And we do the memory of Dr. King a disservice if we get through the day without talking about Ralph Abernathy, Victoria Gray Adams, Ella Baker, Julian Bond, Ruby Bridges, Septima Clark, Medgar Evers, Bernice Fisher, Cookie Gilchrist, Jesse Jackson, Kivie Kaplan, Jacob Lawrence, Stanley Levison, John Lewis, Mae Mallory, Thurgood Marshall, James Meredith, Diane Nash, Rosa Parks, James Peck, A. Philip Randolph, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, Michael Schwerner, Fred Shuttlesworth, Leon Sullivan, Harry Wachtel, Wyatt Tee Walker, Roy Wilkins, Harris Wofford, Louis Tompkins Wright, or Malcom X. Just to throw a few names out there. Choose your own. There are thousands. Millions.

On the other hand, it would be doing the memory of Dr. King a disservice not to talk about the man himself. And one of the things that I have been seeing—that Left Blogovia has been drawing attention to over the last few years—is the way the actual Martin Luther King, Jr. is being replaced by an anodyne, inoffensive pablum version; a version that prefers mean repose to uncomfortable truth, and that tells us that we, black or white, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, straight or gay, we have no urgent need to fight injustice today, in our lives, in our communities, in our nation. The real Martin Luther King—the imperfect one, the one with actual thoughts, actual goals, actual errors, actual achievements, actual insights, actual alliances, and actual biases—is there to look at.

My own bugaboo, of course, is about labor. There is no question what the real Martin Luther King thought about unions and the labor movement:

In answer to your first question, I strongly believe that the fight for Civil Rights is an integral part of the over-all battle for social justice in the United States. By its very nature, this movement for the human dignity of eighteen million Negroes raises problems and demands solutions which involve every American who is concerned with freedom and decency. And then, the very success of our cause depends upon our ability to fashion a gigantic and integrated alliance of the progressive social forces in the United States. Indeed, the very fact that we stand for “integration,” for a society in which the Negro will have complete political, economic and social equality, commits us to fight for a whole series of measures which go beyond the specific issue of segregation.

For example, it is no accident that the forces of race hatred in the South are also the partisans of reaction on every other issue. The American labor movement has discovered this when it tries to organize workers or when it faces the fact that “Right-to-Work” laws are a favorite instrument of the leaders of the White Citizen Councils and the Klan. In the South itself, then, the broader implications of our struggle for Civil Rights are there for everyone to see-and are made most obvious by the supporters of discrimination themselves. As integration develops, the Negro will more and more face the social and political dimensions of the race issue. As a Southern citizen, he will discover an identity of interest with all those who champion decent conditions for all workers, adequate housing and medicine for the entire population, and so on.

Then, there is the political aspect of our fight. It is obvious to us that a political majority for Civil Rights will also be a majority in favor of many other social reforms. Those who already support our cause-the unions, the liberals, the more progressive farmers-represent a cross section of the great American majority. When this coalition becomes politically effective in its battle against minority rule and reaction, it will act on Civil Rights and on the many other problems confronting the American people, Negro and white.

That's from a 1959 written interview in Challenge magazine, which was the organ of the Young People's Socialist League.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.