On the commemoration of Martin Luther King

One should not let the public commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr., pass unremarked. I assume that most readers here know what they are commemorating — a historic step forward for racial justice, along with a legacy of more radical hopes, including in the area of anti-imperialism and economic justice, that were tragically unfulfilled.

That is what we commemorate. Yet what do “they” commemorate, what is the social order or “big Other” commemorating when they enshrine Martin Luther King as a public hero? I would venture to say that they are commemorating above all his failures, defining them as the outer limit of possibility. To those who say, as Katie Grimes at Women in Theology reminds us, that racism continues to poison life in America — well, they say, you had Martin Luther King. To those who claim that war and capitalism are part of the same complex of injustice as racism, they say that over-extending his message is what discredited Martin Luther King and ultimately got him killed.

Above all, they say: we gave you formal equality and canonized the man who forced us to do so — now can we please not talk about this any more? Yet things are not quite so fargone as that. Despite their formidable power, despite all the efforts of domestication and neutralization they’ve devoted to it, they can’t fully control the meaning of such a powerful symbol. We should be glad that this date is on the calendar, not so that we can passively honor that symbol but so that we can continue to struggle over its meaning.

One thought on “On the commemoration of Martin Luther King

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Here’s a powerful excerpt from King’s “The Drum Major Instinct” that he delivered in Feb 4, 1968, exactly two months prior to his assassination. We should never forget that the sermon he was preparing to deliver the day of his assassination was “Why America May Go to Hell”.

    “But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.” (Preach it) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

    God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.

    But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. (Amen) The God that I worship has a way of saying, “Don’t play with me.” (Yes) He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, “Don’t play with me, Israel. Don’t play with me, Babylon. (Yes) Be still and know that I’m God. And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.” (Yes) And that can happen to America. (Yes) Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening. And we have perverted the drum major instinct.”

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