Today is Martin Luther King Jr Day. If you had a day off from work, you probably know this. If you worked or are working today, you probably also still know this.
Still, I want to speak about things you don’t know—things that I should know more about, but want to share regardless. These are things we should all know more about. Hardly do I ever feel comfy using an all-inclusive “we,” but I have no problem in presenting such a we without a caveat here.
I am by no means an expert on Martin Luther King, so I want to speak through links. This started as a Facebook status, but once I started parsing out what this holiday really means, its history and how more-or-less accurately it stands as a totem of MLK’s more-or-less enduring legacy, I find it “necessary” to use a longer medium to share my thoughts and, more importantly, the thoughts of more learned others.
I’ve assembled the following links as a sort of round-up. I hope that, through the linked pieces and the pieces linked in those pieces and so forth and so forth, you are roused into an active disquiet, the same type of active disquiet that compelled King and his work. Presenting information in links provides the potential to send a reader into a frenzied state of clicking Chrome into dozens of half-read tabs. This is “relatively ok” in my book, the keywords being “relatively” and “ok.” Hopefully, a few of these articles and the writings linked therein will be read carefully and thoughtfully by those reading this here now; it’s obviously better to read and read carefully than it is to skim. But it’s also useful to keep clicking, to keep digging, to keep learning, than to not interact with the material at all. Read what compels you, click what you will and remember and identify with what MLK Day really “means” in whatever way is most suitable for your particular style of learning.
This is by no means a comprehensive round-up. Rather, it’s what I personally encountered online today, so it’s what I’m sharing. Thus, I also encourage you to share your own links in the comments and to continue the discussion by sharing what you learn with myself and any others you think would benefit from further reading.
First and foremost I strongly suggest a perusal of the MLK day Wikipedia page, which touches on many of the things that are to come in the following links.
Even now, MLK day is different on a state-by-state basis.
Here, Jamelle Bouie (Slate) helps locate contemporary MLK day in a national perspective where it’s not celebrated the same way by everyone. He acknowledges that, though MLK’s earned iconicity for the civil rights movement is worth celebration, there are many aspects of his own day of celebration about which the man would be, rightfully, hyper-critical. Namely, he would be appalled (but also probably unsurprised) that in Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama, the home of fabled Birmingham, MLK Day shares it’s name with Robert E. Lee Day. As Bouie informs us:
“This isn’t a different Robert E. Lee—some forgotten crusader for human equality. No, this is the Gen. Robert E. Lee who led Confederate armies in war against the United States, who defended a nation built on the ‘great truth’ that the ‘negro is not equal to the white man,’ and whose armies kidnapped and sold free black Americans whenever they had the opportunity.
Despite his betrayal of the Union (a stark contrast to fellow Virginian Winfield Scott, who refused to join the Confederacy) and his treatment of enslaved black Americans—as a slavedriver, he sold children and oversaw brutal punishments, including sewing brine into the wounds of returned fugitives—Lee’s popular image is of an honorable and decent man who fought well and loathed slavery. (The former is debatable and the latter is true, in that Lee thought slaveholding a burdensome occupation.)”
The notion that King must share a holiday with Robert E. Lee in some states, is not a state-specific anomaly. That anyone would find it acceptable to celebrate Lee, let alone celebrate him on the same day we celebrate King, is indicative of a very real, very troublesome and unfortunately ubiquitous way of thinking about race and civil rights in this nation, wherein erasure and heroification abound to a tune of discord and subsumption.
The floating holiday, occurring every year on January’s third Monday, was dubbed a federal holiday when Ronald Reagan signed the bill, proposed by Representative Katie Hall of Indiana, into action. This is the same Ronald Reagan who, while governor of California, spoke out against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Later, as president, he continued to reinforce a problematic racial status quo as he:
“[gutted] the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, [fought] the extension of the Voting Rights Act, [vetoed] the Civil Rights Restoration Act (Which required all recipients of federal funds to comely with civil rights laws) and initially [opposed] the creation of MLK Day (he changed his tune when it passed with Congress with a veto-proof majority).”
There were more racially questionable aspects of Reagan’s presidency, some of which are detailed in this Policy.Mic article, quoted above. In this context, the actual singing of the bill—it’s passage into federal existence—was more political appeasement than it was actual recognition and remembrance, which is upsetting to say the least.
As Time notes in a very brief history of the holiday from 2010, “the origins of the holiday are mired in racism, politics and conspiracy.” They also have an article from today that I haven’t really read and thus can’t vouch for because I’ve been reading other things, but that shouldn’t stop you.
The King-holiday bill was put forth to congress after Stevie Wonder (yes, that Stevie Wonder) and Coretta Scott organized a massive petition consisting of a whopping 6 million signatures. However, as the Time article notes, after passing through congress 338-90, it was met with more contention in the Senate:
“In an opposition campaign led primarily by Republican Senators John P. East and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, some attempted to emphasize King’s associations with communists and his alleged sexual dalliances as reasons not to honor him with a federal holiday. As part of his efforts, on Oct. 3, 1983, Helms read a paper on the Senate floor, written by an aide to Senator East, called “Martin Luther King Jr.: Political Activities and Associations” and also provided a 300-page supplemental document to the members of the Senate detailing King’s communist connections. Some Senators expressed outrage over Helms’ actions, including New York’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who threw the document to he ground, stomped on it and deemed it a ‘packet of filth.’”
Also of note from this article, are details of how Arizona really, really didn’t want to celebrate the holiday. And by “Arizona,” I mean all three Arizona House Republicans which, at the time, included John McCain. In fact, the NFL—in a surprisingly conscientious move for the lately infamous league—boycotted the slated 1993 Arizona Super Bowl and ended up moving it to the Rose Bowl in California, which not only lost the state the widely watched game, but also probably like, $50 million in the process.
Here is a rousing essay written by Saul Williams, as he “does his part to #reclaimMLK,” that accompanies a comparably stirring song from the upcoming Martyr Loser King. I need to read it several more times to form more coherent thoughts about it and so do you. His prose’s brilliance and lyricality makes it such that it’s difficult to comment on and is instead something you just have to read. The heart of the essay, in my opinion, lies in this poignant passage:
“To the powers that be, we say “fuck u” and to those who, like police, follow orders, fight or work to maintain a system that does not keep their best interest, nor the overwhelming majority’s at heart we say ‘understand me.'”
“This is how I imagine the trans-Atlantic middle passage. The countless bodies jammed into the hull of a ship, sweating in darkness. Tormented ritual of initiation into the New World. To travel to space one goes through months, in most cases years, of training and preparation. The survivors of the middle-passage went thru as much to travel to the New World and into slavery. The First Nation reference is there to give honor to the indigenous of the land and the foresight of ritualized transformation. The only group murdered more by police in the US than blacks, is Native Americans. The connecting of dots, of movements, of voices, and narratives…”
We must keep in mind too how King’s image has been “somewhat” hollowed by the same mechanisms of power and inequality that he himself sought to override. There are people and then, when they’re gone, there are memories of those people; the more people who remember a man, the more prone that memory is to mutation. I’m not saying that we misremember King into a great man, but that he was indefinitely a great man whose powerful message is dulled down like Indian food served in an American restaurant, made more palatable for an audience that doesn’t even know what they’re missing: something essential, something important, something defining is inevitably lost. The memory of King that “lives” in children’s textbooks lacks the full candor that his memory deserves.
Here, in an essay from last year’s MLK Day, Thomas J. Sugrue documents how:
“King’s radicalism is lost to the obfuscating fog of memory. In American culture today, we have several Martin Luther King Jr’s: the Commemorative King, the Therapeutic King, the Conservative King, and the Commodified King. Each of these Kings competes for our attention, but each of them represents a vision of King that he himself would not have recognized.”
Much like Hellen Keller (whose socialist-based activism was pretty much erased by American rhodophobia to create a more “harmless” image of a schoolgirl, rather than a powerful image of a woman who fought avidly for union and education rights), King’s socialism, and, as Sustar argues in an essay published today, much of his essential intentions are ignored in contemporary teachings about the man.
“Faced with hostility from the Johnson administration, criticism from both black nationalists and the black establishment, and a divided staff, King was politically isolated as never before when he was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968 — less than three weeks before the Poor People’s Campaign was to begin. King had travelled to Memphis to support a strike by black sanitation workers — he was the only national civil rights leader to do so.
Yet it wasn’t long after his death that the media hacks of the ruling class began to convert King into a harmless saint.
To do this, however, they had to bury the real legacy of Martin Luther King — both the leader of the critical early struggles of the civil rights movement who refused to accept pleas for patience and moderation from his liberal Democratic allies, and the more radical black leader of the late 1960s whose vision of what needed to be changed in society had widened enormously.”
As I’ve hopefully demonstrated, MLK day is not necessarily the day for celebration that we all want it to be. It is a day that has been subject to the same racisms, elitisms and all other myriad ignorances as the man who we remember on the day was subject to as well. So it goes. The day is now nearly over, but on future MLK days or even tomorrow, or this week, or whenever, read some of MLK’s actual writings, his letters, his speeches. I, personally, haven’t read as much as I should or want to.
Ultimately, I urge you: don’t let the “holiday” pass every year as just a “day off.”
MLK Day is a day to turn types of thought “on” that are otherwise more-or-less easier to ignore, a day to point out problematics, a day to confront taken-for-grantedness and, most importantly, it is a day to remember what, like King, has been assassinated since the last third Monday of January.
Again, please share links with me and I’ll happily add them to this round-up with any commentary you have to offer.