Meeting Martin Luther King Again for the First Time
Editor’s note: Having just returned (Monday, Jan. 16, 2016) from participating in a demonstration and march in Oakland, Ca. today in honor of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr, I was glad to receive this submission to Tikkun (below) by African American studies professor (and Tikkun magazine author) Obery Hendricks. It is an important counter to the kind of rhetoric and tone I heard at today’s demonstration. At the rally before the march began I heard one of the M.C.s ask the crowd to repeat “we will win by ANY MEANS NECESSARY” — a slogan I first heard from the Black Panther Party in 1968 — in clear attempt to repudiate King’s message both then and now about how to fight racism.
King, as you will recall, was a devout believer in the sanctity of the means, not just the ends, and hence insisted that the movement he led must be committed to nonviolence. When I met with King a month before he was murdered, I mentioned to him that his commitment to nonviolence was part of what many Jewish interpreters of the Torah’s command “Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue” (tzedeck, tzedeck tir’dof) insisted upon. “Why repeat the word “justice” twice?” they asked. And their answer: “because the struggle for justice must be pursued in a just manner,” which for many of them meant in a nonviolent manner. Those who cheered the “by any means necessary” slogan may not have even understood that they were repudiating King’s message–but they did know that those words have been understood by demonstrators and activists for the past fifty years to mean that if some of them believe that violence is necessary that it is an acceptable choice–just the opposite of what King taught.
This same distortion of the ethical message of our movement is part of why it was such a sin for the Nobel Prize committee to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama, whose speech in acceptance of the award was really an apologia for “any means necessary” and whose subsequent years as president in which he acknowledged directing drone attacks at suspected terrorists in circumstances where innocent civilians were certain to also be killed (“collateral damage” is one of the most disgusting phrases of contemporary government sanctioned mass murder) makes him yet another U.S. president who leaves office with much blood on his hands (his Administration acknowledges hundreds of such victims; human rights monitors of his attacks estimate the numbers in the thousands).
One reason nobody challenged this discourse is that it was said at the rally by an African American woman. As one activist said to me, “white people have privilege and therefore have no right to challenge African American women in their discourse.” This, of course, is the curse of “identity politics” with its silencing of debate not on the basis of having a better argument, but rather because whatever is being said is coming from someone judged to be “more oppressed than you.” I know this discourse well, because I grew up in a Zionist world where many Jews used this same argument to silence others (both Jews and non-Jews) who dared to challenge Israel’s oppressive treatment of Palestinians. The Holocaust, not some distant 19th century slavery but the actual murder of their own family members (one out of every three Jews alive on this planet in 1939 were murdered by 1945), became the basis for insisting that no one had a the ethical standing to question the means that the Jewish people had chosen to create safety for ourselves in the 20th (and now 21st) century. So I learned early how perverse identity politics could and would become, as very decent Jews replaced the injunction to nonviolence that had predominated through much of Jewish history with a blanket “by any means necessary” of our own!!!!
No wonder that it is hard to build a powerful enough anti-racist movement in the U.S. if its public spokespeople allow such discourse in their name, a discourse which besmirches the high ethical goals and means that made Martin Luther King Jr. a hero to tens of millions of Americans and who got Americans to rally against racism both during his lifetime and for several decades thereafter. Lets make MLK, Jr’s message, as beautifully remembered and reframed by Obery Hendricks below, become the central discourse of our struggle for a world of love and justice! To see what that might look like, please also read the vision of the Network of Spiritual Progressives at www.tikkun.org/covenant and then join us!
–Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor, Tikkun RabbiLerner.firstname.lastname@example.org
I first met Martin Luther King at the age of seven at Bob’s Barber Shop (“Baba Shop” we pronounced it) on a once busy avenue in East Orange, NJ, a few blocks from the Newark line. The federal government’s voracious Urban Renewal (read: “Negro Removal”) Program has long since reduced Bob’s and everything around it to rubble, but what I heard and learned there throughout my youth informs and enriches me still.
Like so many black folks’ barbershops, Bob’s was much more than a place for a shave and a haircut. It was a welcoming epicenter of cacophonous organic intellectual exchange by passionate, good-natured men who, though mostly unlettered – forced by poverty to leave school early for sweltering fields and stifling timber mills, or consigned to Southern chain gangs for trifling or imagined offenses to white folks’ sensibilities – they were nonetheless possessed of intuitive intellectuality, clear-eyed political instincts, and thankful appreciation for a place to unleash the soaring thoughts their workplaces had no use for. I loved their earthy speech, the poetry and drawl of their humor, the sheer musicality of their words. But no matter how their discussions began, no matter how or where they wandered, without fail they found their way to the cocoa-skinned young preacher with the sober affect and voice like cool thunder who was their Moses and Joshua both. To them his was a one-word name, a title even, intoned in their unstripped Southern accents with such breathless respect that they barely took time to pronounce it: “MarthaLuthaKang,” he was. Martha Lutha Kang. The sound of his name comforted them, inspired them, imbued them with a species of hope and pride that none but those who have been broken and reborn can rightly understand.
“MarthaLuthaKang integrated them buses and lunch counters, even got folks voting, and ain’t fired one shot. Ain’t used fist nor gun.”
“I got to give that MarthaLuthaKang a whole lot of credit, cause I’ll be dog if I’ma let some white folks beat on me until they get tired.”
“MarthaLuthaKang say it ain’t just about taking a beating. He calls it ‘nonviolent resistance’. Let white folks get all their hate out so we can all love our neighbors as Jesus say.”
“MarthaLuthaKang the only Negro that one set of white folks put in jail for a criminal and another set of white folks take out for a hero. Now, that’s integration.”
But where there are thinkers with strong passions, there is always some measure of dissent.
“Well, y’all can go on with that integration stuff if you want to. But me myself, I ain’t interested in riding nor eating with no white man. I just want somebody to integrate my money is all, turn my money green. If MarthaLuthaKang do that, I’ll eat a hamburger with George Wallace anywhere he say.”
“MarthaLuthaKang ain’t interested in no money like some of these preachers thinking they supposed to live like kings. He just wants justice in America for every colored man, woman and child. Poor white folks, too. And for all of us to love our neighbor the same way we love ourselves. That’s all he want and all he do. ”
“That MarthaLuthaKang is something else, ain’t he?”
The admiration of the barbershop men for King perched on the precipice of awe. For my part, I beheld him with the wonderment that young boys reserve for superheroes. Away from the barbershop environs I pronounced his name as it was intoned at Sunday School, on the radio and the six o’clock news. But in my heart he was who I first knew him to be: MarthaLuthaKang, who was revered second only to Jesus by everyone important in my world. So MarthaLuthaKang he remained.
Until he did not.
As I struggled through the confusions and recalibrations of pubescence, my imagination was captured by a force that changed me forever: the Black Power Movement. Its rumblings were brash, its rhetoric defiant, its styles and symbols, seductive. After a steady diet of Kingfish, Beulah, Aunt Jemima and Buckwheat, I saw young black folks standing tall, standing firm, proud of who they were and dedicated to serving their beloved and beleaguered communities; neither skinning nor grinning nor in any way paying deference where it was not due, standing up for themselves and their communities against police who sometimes would rather crack a black skull than eat lunch. When these rogue bearers of badges betrayed their oaths to protect and defend, choosing instead to brutalize and humiliate, these brave young men and women defended their communities with eloquence of speech, unwavering courage and dedication, sophisticated strategies and knowledge of the law, and the occasional fist if circumstances demanded. King’s appeals for love, for “redemptive suffering” and nonviolence –which, I realized, I’d never been fully comfortable with – now seemed both foolish and sadly weak compared to the fearless young people with their black berets, their black leather jackets, their dashikis, orbital Afros and intricate hair braiding. Martin Luther King in his funereal suits and his tradition-laden preachments did not stand a chance with urban youths like me.
So with palpable disdain I cast aside the saint of black barbershop philosophers and beleaguered black folks everywhere. But why was it so easy for me to so unceremoniously throw aside a man behind whom so many willingly ventured through the valley of the shadow of death, a man who’d long been my hero, and was still hero to so many?
I see now that I was able to dismiss him with such youthful arrogance because I had no idea who Martin Luther King really was. By then MarthaLuthaKang the venerated had been replaced in my mind by Martin Luther King the defamed and woefully misportrayed: King the “We Shall Overcome” dreamer of toothless dreams, King the world-class panderer to white largesse, King the preacher of celebrated oratory and naïve, self-abnegating pleas to embrace those who would slaughter our young and often did.
So in truth, I banned King from my pantheon of heroes because I did not know the truth: that beneath the carefully disciplined oratory, beneath his trenchant appeals to love and forgiveness, beneath the countless unchallenged beatings and homicidal assaults, in reality, Martin Luther King, Jr., was more radical than I could have ever imagined. Despite my years of barbershop tutelage and the ubiquity of his singular voice and visage, despite my certainty that the six o’clock news and Black Nationalist rhetoric had taught me all there was to know about him, it is clear now that I knew him not. Seduced as I was by the blanketing gaze of those who opposed him in life (and now misportray him in death), I had no way of knowing that when King said, “America, you must be born again;” that when he said, “You have to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values;” and when he said, “There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism,” that in these pronouncements he was not simply talking around the edges of the challenges America faced; he was calling for sweeping changes in the very economic and political structures on which America stands. I mean, how could I have possibly known that when he said, “Our goal is to create a Beloved Community” which “will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives,” that he was not just spouting smarmy sentimentality, but meant instead an America radically reconfigured as an egalitarian democratic socialist political economy (with the emphasis on “democratic”), in which all of God’s children would have equal access to the fruit of the tree of life?
But now I do know. And may it be known by all that Martin Luther King was not only a dedicated fighter for racial justice. He was also a politically radical thinker who had long nursed the visionary hope of restructuring in the image of justice the economic order in this country that so routinely profits the rich and even more routinely impoverishes the poor. To one reporter he acknowledged as much. “You might say that we are engaged in a class war,” he said without remarkable boldness.
But today we have hollowed the boldness of Martin Luther King by hallowing him into America’s apostle extraordinaire of kumbiyah and teary-eyed handholding. The radicality of his vision and praxis is all but lost. Yet in these fraught times we need to reclaim the boldness and clarity of vision of the leader of the most effective movement for justice that this nation has seen, or at least be informed by it. For if the hateful, divisive campaign of Donald Trump is prologue to his presidency, we are faced with the greatest potential onslaught on civil liberties, love for our neighbors, justice under the law and social responsibility that America has endured in half a century; it threatens to rend the very fabric of our democracy society.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was slain as he forged ahead with that “class war” that still confronts us today, slain on the cusp of realizing a last dream that we must now claim as our own – a Poor People’s Campaign to press for a restructuring of America’s social architecture into a nation that will wax ever more just and ever more equitable – wax and never again wane. Not a utopia, but a true Beloved Community, imperfect yet perpetually trying to do right; ever striving through its legislated policies, its dedicated laws and most love-tempered edicts to answer the call of the prophet that long ago set King upon his own Samaritan’s road, to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Obery Hendricks teaches religion and African-American studies at Columbia University. He is the author of The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Teachings and Jesus and How They Have Been Corrupted (Doubleday, 2006)