Walter Benjamin famously, and somewhat enigmatically, declared that “even the dead won’t be safe from the enemy if he is victorious.” The example that leaps to mind for me is Martin Luther King, the increasingly revolutionary leader who was assassinated by white America and then made into an icon of its progress. So, for instance, the National Review — a right-wing publication that was against him every step of the way — can commemorate this day with an obscene appropriation that reduces the great man to a motivational slogan:
Similarly, the Washington Post has seen fit to mark this day by publishing a column declaring Martin Luther King a true conservative who stood up for American values. The column initially seems well-intentioned, but it’s much more about restoring the cultural prestige of conservatism in the face of Trump than about affirming King’s authentic legacy.
King was never mainstream. Even the nice liberals worried that he was going too far, moving too fast. The gains he made came after his movement had, through great sacrifice and suffering, undeniably shown up the ugliness and violence of racism. He didn’t proceed by appealing to our best instincts, unless it was by the indirect route of holding up a mirror to our very worst instincts. And now he’s become a tool for asserting white righteousness and, more often than not, shaming the very people who uphold his legacy of protest that is non-violent but far from peaceful — because it reveals the war that has always been at the heart of our sick society. Indeed, other than MLK Day itself, I am struggling to remember a time when his name has been evoked other than as a weapon against organizers in the black community.
Even the dead will not be safe. They kill the man, then kill the legacy — by actively blinding themselves to it.
Amaryah alerts us that Vincent Lloyd has a great piece up for Martin Luther King Day. An excerpt:
Where are those powerful resources found? I do not think that we should turn to King’s late work to find a more “radical” leader. While such a turn has become fashionable of late, I believe it is actually the early King to whom social justice advocates ought to turn. In King’s early sermons and speeches, he spoke in a decidedly theological idiom, and he spoke from and to the black community. As his career progressed, his public voice became more secular and his audience became whiter — a trend that accelerated after his assassination, culminating in the secularized, post-racial King memorialized in Washington.
At Women in Theology, Amaryah Armstrong has a post critiquing the idea of “racial reconciliation”:
I want to be clear here that conflict resolution at an interpersonal level is important for life together, but the framework of reconciliation, even when it attempts to speak about justice, values the confession and the future to come above the present. Reconciliation displaces structural analysis for narratives of various experiences that end with a unity in Christ and a theological vision that is white. These narratives are used to imbue hope for the possibility of reconciliation but they actually prevent the possibility of ending white supremacy, anti-blackness, and racism because it is the supercessionist framework itself that is the problem. Reconciliation thus becomes a way of displacing structural dominance and oppression to the level of inter-personal conflict and confessions of privilege, moving our focus away from the ways Christianity itself structures racial domination and racial formation. Because reconciliation is never able to call Christianity itself into question as a problematic framework, only white people. Reconciliation continues to reproduce an inability to recognize itself as that which produces the division in the first place through its narration of identity as things to be superceded. Rather than clarifying relations of power, reconciliation mystifies them.
In addition to its intrinsic interest, her post includes many helpful links.
In past years, I’ve linked to an old article about Martin Luther King’s more radical activism toward the end of his career. This semester, though, it so happens that the concluding reading for my class Social Sciences 2 (The Western Political Tradition) is the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This morning, Corey Robin posted an excerpt that I will post as well:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
I’m reminded too of Benjamin’s thesis on liberal dismay that progress might go in the wrong direction:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.