Philosophy Weekend: What Martin Luther King Endured

I had a chance to check out Washington DC’s new Martin Luther King memorial earlier this week. A big opening ceremony featuring President Barack Obama and other significant guests scheduled for this weekend has been postponed for an approaching hurricane, but the memorial is open to visitors, and I found a large and enthusiastic crowd on the day I dropped by.

I was surprised — maybe I shouldn’t have been? — that nearly everybody besides me who came out to see the memorial was African-American. This points to a disappointing fact I’ve observed before: even though Martin Luther King has now been enshrined in American history as a legend, a hero and a cliche, his great universal message of activism through nonviolent resistance remains largely neglected and misunderstood in America and around the world. The King approach to solving problems feels every bit as startlingly innovative and unique today as it did in the 1960s. The miraculous fact that King’s patient, compromise-based approach can actually succeed in solving “unsolvable” conflicts remains widely ignored, even though the problems we face today are as severe as the problems King faced so brilliantly and successfully in his time. Most people would rather gripe, whine and fight each other than take a risk on loving their neighbors and trying to truly understand and cope with variant points of view.

Martin Luther King never had an easy time getting his peaceful message across. It’s well known today that he and his fellow activists had to endure vicious taunts and provocations by their opponents, but King also took a hard beating, often for different reasons, in the allegedly liberal mainstream media, and another hard beating from many of his fellow African-American activists. Like any leader who tries to compromise and rise above the pettiness of simple hatred, he took it from the left and the right, from black and white, from north and south. An early John Updike short story called “Marching Through Boston”, published in the New Yorker in January 1966, delivers a refreshingly direct look at how Martin Luther King was seen in his own time.

“Marching Through Boston” presents the Maples, Updike’s recurring married couple, attending what must have been this April 1965 Boston rally (the precise level of detail suggests that Updike must have attended the Boston rally himself). As in so much of the pointless drama surrounding black/white relations in the USA, this short story turns on sexual politics, and the joke here is on the white male. Richard Maple watches with open jealousy as Joan Maple gets drawn into King’s large circle of activists. She travels to Alabama alone to attend a rally, and then Richard joins her when King arrives to lead a march in their own home city. His weak protests throughout the story help us understand what the Harvard-educated/upper-class line against Martin Luther King was during the height of the civil rights struggle: King was a phony, a performer. “Didn’t it seem corny, and forced?” Richard Maple complains to Joan after they hear King speak in Boston. “Somewhat,” Joan replies. “But does it matter?”

This is a wonderful, sensitive story, but Updike’s comic riffs on King as voiced by his fictional surrogate Richard Maple can seem nearly offensive today. Richard, indulging himself in a state of feverish exhaustion after the long march through Boston, finally lets his frustration out in a tirade to Joan:

“Please stop it.”

But he found he could not stop, and even after they reached home and she put him to bed, the children watching in alarm, his voice continued its slurred plaint. “Ah’ze all right, Missy, jes’ a tech of double pneumonia, don’t you fret none, we’ll get the cotton in.”

“You’re embarrassing the children.”

“Shecks, doan min’ me, chilluns. Ef Ah could jes’ res’ hyah foh a spell in de shade o’ de watuhmelon patch, res’ dese ol’ bones … Lawzy, dat do feel good!”

Another view of Martin Luther King in his own time can be found in Kenneth Clark’s June 1963 interview with Malcolm X. Like John Updike’s Richard Maple, Malcolm X has little sympathy for the hard work Martin Luther King is doing, and has nothing but negativity to offer:

Kenneth Clark: Reverend Martin Luther King preaches a doctrine of non-violent insistence upon the rights of the American Negro. What is your attitude toward this philosophy?

Malcolm X: The white man pays Reverend Martin Luther King, subsidizes Reverend Martin Luther King, so that Reverend Martin Luther King can continue to teach the Negroes to be defenseless. That’s what you mean by non-violent: be defenseless. Be defenseless in the face of one of the most cruel beasts that has ever taken a people into captivity. That’s this American white man. And they have proved it throughout the country by the police dogs and the police clubs.

A hundred years ago they used to put on a white sheet and use a bloodhound against Negroes. Today they’ve taken off the white sheet and put on police uniforms, they’ve traded in the bloodhounds for police dogs, and they’re still doing the same thing. And just as Uncle Tom, back during slavery, used to keep the Negroes from resisting the bloodhound, or resisting the Ku Klux Klan, by teaching them to love their enemy, or pray for those who use them spitefully, today Martin Luther King is just a 20th century or modern Uncle Tom, or a religious Uncle Tom, who is doing the same thing today, to keep Negroes defenseless in the face of an attack, that Uncle Tom did on the plantation to keep those Negroes defenseless in the face of the attacks of the Klan in that day.

Kenneth Clark: But the goal of Dr. King is full equality —

Malcolm X: No.

Kenneth Clark: … and full rights of citizenship for Negroes.

Malcolm X: The goal of Dr. Martin Luther King is to give Negroes a chance to sit in a segregated restaurant beside the same white man who had brutalized them for 400 years. The goal of Dr. Martin Luther King is to get Negroes to forgive the people who have brutalized them for 400 years by lulling them to sleep, and making them forgetting what those whites have done to them. But the masses of black people in America today don’t go for what Martin Luther King is putting down.

I respect both John Updike and Malcolm X. That’s why I find it instructive to observe that even these two very smart people wasted their time complaining about the great Martin Luther King during the most critical years of his historic struggle, instead of offering their support. To be widely criticized must be the fate, I suppose, of any leader who dares to present a far-reaching program that is grounded in patience, hope, compromise, and a wide sense of respect. This rare type of brave leader will not often receive the same level of respect in return.

There’s a big granite statue of the great American hero in Washington DC today, but I’m afraid the leaders of today who attempt to follow in King’s gracious footsteps remain sadly misunderstood, and also get it from all sides.

14 Responses

  1. Yeah, that Malcolm X sure
    Yeah, that Malcolm X sure wasted his time complaining and dwelling in negativity, like when he said: “When you are right, you cannot be too radical … The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.”

    Oops, my bad…that was MLK’s quote.

    Very simplistic, narrow view of both men, Levi. Both were radical at times, accommodating at times. Sometimes right, sometimes wrong. Both vastly braver and bolder than a certain drone-bombing, Wall Street-loving president you love.

    Have you read Marable’s book on Malcolm? It might help fill in some of the many blanks you’ve left behind here.

    Fascinating how reflexively you dismiss anyone who doesn’t stay within the boundaries of accepted debate. Equally fascinating how you can mock Malcolm but worship Obama yet you claim to be on the side of progressive change.

    Yeah, yeah…I know I said I wouldn’t comment again but damn…stuff like this is infuriating.

  2. Look at it from Malcolm X’s
    Look at it from Malcolm X’s point of view, he was preaching a more radical (ambitious) message of black independence, which was marginalized and often ignored in favor of MLK’s compromises and efforts at coexistence with the perceived oppressive powers.

    There is a world of difference between pursuing equality and the pursuit to end oppression. Malcolm X wanted his people to be strong to resist oppression while MLK wanted assimilation into a society which was destroying them.

    MLK helped change the Law while MX was trying to enlighten and evolve society.

    Not to say MLK’s goals werent admirable, but at the same time, had Malcolm X succeeded on the same level as MLK, the endless Maury Povich festivities wouldnt exist. And rappers wouldnt brag about pushing junk into their neighbourhoods while they pimp out their own people like modern day slave traders.

    Again, MLK isnt responsible for these problems but Malcolm X was addressing these issues while attacking racism.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that YES, you could fault MX for not backing MLK BUT you could fault MLK for not backing MX. Although I fail to see how they could reach a consensus since their philosophies are fundamentally opposed.

    It would be like complaining that Sartre and Heidegger should be best pals because they both ripped off Husserl and Nietzsche.

  3. It would help if more people
    It would help if more people actually read King and Malcom X. King’s writing in particular is amazing. I did view both men as cliched before I read their writing and X’s biography. I think that X is unfairly dismissed as a radical, his reaction to oppression was just. Do you think whites were wrong to fight for freedom in the American Revolution?

  4. Well, I think the difference
    Well, I think the difference between Malcolm X’s kind of activism and Martin Luther King’s is that MLK’s actually works. Just look at the progress made in USA civil rights between 1955 (when he and Rosa Parks began the Montgomery bus boycott) and 1965, when the Voting Rights Act became law in the USA. Absolutely incredible and historically unprecendented level of progress in ten years.

    I respect Malcolm — I read his autobiography, etc., though I haven’t read the Marable book — but I think as far as history goes he was a dime a dozen. Every angry ethnic group in the world has had a few of him. They may inspire people, but they don’t seem to improve things very much.

    MLK was much more unique. If there had ever been an activist with his level of character in Israel or Palestine, maybe we’d even have peace there today.

  5. Mickey, can you at least let
    Mickey, can you at least let me know what part of my last comment leaves you speechless? That’s not a reaction I expected … I didn’t think I wrote anything so unusual.

  6. Levi,
    I think you are


    I think you are over-estimating MLK’s tactics and role in the civil rights movement. Sure, he was brilliant at PR but protests didnt end bus segregation, car pooling did. Economic boycots which were promoted with speeches and marching.

    Smoke and mirrors: maybe it’s a good idea to provoke the police into kicking the defenseless ass of your supporters on the street, I dont see it but who knows?

    And the major accomplishments as far as Consitutional change may have more to do with Lyndon Johnson’s vision of the Great Society, and Nixon cutting government funding to segregated schools. At the very least, there is a direct link. Both these men consistently advocated equal rights since the beginnings of their careers. Sure, they respected MLK but that’s because they were on the same page. THESE CHANGES WERE INEVITABLE

    MX a dime a dozen? He’s the closest the United States has come to a Nietzsche, a man who was attempting to cure a crisis before it came about. In many ways he’s a prophet.

    He was realistic when MLK was optimistic. He saw that equality wasnt something to fight for, he took it for granted that blacks are equal, they are weak incomparison to their oppressors. MLK’s compromises may have got the MAN to lay off them, but it failed to empower a people.

    Make as many rallies and statues, elect a black man so he embroil his country in 3 wars while writing a blank cheque for untold billions to Wall Street:

    We all know who’s boss, they’re just politer about it.

    That, and white people arent allowed to say certain ‘bad’ words anymore.

    Re: peaceful protest solving Israel + Palestine conflicts, the simplicity by which you perceive this issue reveals that the age of innocence is not over.

  7. Well, Iglius, I definitely
    Well, Iglius, I definitely agree that the civil rights struggle had many leaders and prime movers, yes, including LBJ, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

    Still, my point is that well-organized nonviolent resistance has an amazing track record in the 20th Century. I’m thinking not only of MLK and USA, of course, but of Gandhi in India, Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Corazon Aquino in the Phillipines. Nonviolent resistance has got by far the best track record of any form of protest.

    I never said peace between Israel and Palestine would be simple! I said in this article that it took the King civil rights movement 10 years in the USA. It took Gandhi much longer in India. Maybe it will take 40 years between Israel and Palestine. Simple? Hell no. Still, I remain absolutely optimistic that there will eventually be peace in the Middle East, and I doubt that it will ever happen without some form of nonviolent resistance on all sides.

    Iglius, you call me innocent. If this means you think I don’t know my facts, you’re way off. I follow events in the Middle East and around the world very closely. But if “innocent” means I have hope, then I’m proud to have managed to hold on to my innocence.

  8. It’s interesting to mention
    It’s interesting to mention Gandhi. Churchill opposed Indian independence because he could see the militant split that became India v. Pakistan. Gandhi thought through his peaceful leadership, he could overcome their antagonism and centuries of violence. It overtook him and now both countries survive through mutual armament and support from competing world powers.

    I hate to bring in Nazis into an argument but: Gandhi also said he would have been able to overcome Nazi colonialism through non-violent resistance. He said millions would have died but eventually they would have prevailed. I’m not sure about such a stance or what his strategem would have been, maybe he would have instructed his people to put flowers in the lugers pointed at them.

    Yet it was good old fashioned British combat that saved them from that sacrifice. Do you think it would have worked? Or does peaceful protest only work in a democracy and not as a universal principle?

    What about Tiananmen Square, a peaceful protest brutally subdued on live TV. Has that made any positive impact within China’s internal policy?

    With regards to Mandela: it’s just the tip of the iceberg but gives you an idea of what was really going on.

    I dont see any way there can be peace in the middle east with an influx of cash and an independently run and owned industry within all disputed countries. They need more resources upon which to build a bourgeois class, to influence their leaders while building stronger economic links to rival nations.

    Money is power is authority is a voice. Opinions and getting massacred means nothing unless it chokes off the money supply.

  9. Well, Iglius, I also hate to
    Well, Iglius, I also hate to bring Nazis into the argument (we all know that this can quickly get out of hand) but I think you’re really missing the point when you say “it was good old fashioned British combat that saved them [the Jews and other Nazi victims, I presume] from that sacrifice.”

    Saved them? Who got saved? 30 million people died in World War II. All my own relatives in Eastern Europe were massacred — not one of them survived. If this is how Winston Churchill saves people, no thanks! I’ll cast my lot with Gandhi — I think my odds would have been better.

    Also, if you think Winston Churchill opposed Gandhi’s independence movement because he cared about the Hindus and Muslims in India, you’re the innocent one. I’d recommend that you read “Human Smoke”, Nicholson Baker’s excellent recent book about World War II, much of which focuses on Winston Churchill. He doesn’t come out looking like much of a hero.

    It’s true that the partition of India and Pakistan was a disaster, and Gandhi considered this his greatest failure. Still, the goal of his long activist campaign was independence from the British, and this goal was achieved.

    (Sorry if I seem to have a slightly sarcastic tone here, Iglius — the mention of Nazism and Winston Churchill is my excuse. I do value your comments here.)

  10. I hear you re: Nazis, that’s
    I hear you re: Nazis, that’s why I was hoping to dilute things with the Tiannamen Massacre, an instance where peaceful protest backfired on them to little or no impact.

    Human Smoke, eh? Sounds interesting, I’ve heard a lot of crap about what Churchill did and know there’s more to learn. I’d counter with The Arms of Krupp by William Manchester, the second half of the book shows the scope of the labour camps, which, in many ways were worse than the extermination camps. It takes a bureaucratic standpoint that’s quite chilling, showing how slave labour was collected and used to feed the war machine.

    Through sheer numbers, it shows that their system made the Wehrmacht nearly unstoppable.

    Yes Churchill was a son of a bitch, but he was our son of a bitch.

    It’s almost moot to say that had The Third Reich continued without British intervention, millions more would have died. Though from what I’ve read about the war, no Churchill, no British intervention. And no British intervention would have meant the War would have been lost.

    Folks like Baldwin and Chamberlain were making concession and concession attempting to come up with a peaceful solution. Churchill wasnt just beating the war drum but pressuring Parliament to rearm. Did Churchill commit several needless brutalities during the War? Yes, but his presence was necessary to win.

    They even declined FDR’s offer to mediate the situation back in 1936, and went so far as to refuse US surplus. Something of a diplomatic fuck up that made things difficult for Winston when he approached the US for weapons later on.

    But I dont bring up WW2 to discuss Churchill’s stint as head of the Admirality. I brought it up to address Gandhi’s statement that peaceful protest could have stopped Nazi Colonialism, suggesting that the ‘effects’ of peaceful protest could only occur in a modern-day democracy. And in the end, MLK and Gandhi (I dont consider Mandela to be a peaceful protestor, but that’s a separate argument) are merely freak occurrances in history.

    That peace and peaceful change occurs through prime economic conditions rather than political (popular) demand.

  11. Thanks for clarification,
    Thanks for clarification, Iglius. Well, again, I have to urge you to read Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke”, which points to a different conclusion about Winston Churchill and World War II. I’ve written a lot about this topic elsewhere, so I don’t want to repeat myself too much — here’s a link to some good discussion about this:

    The conclusion of Baker’s book is that Hitler and the Nazis, as evil as they were, could not have possibly caused anywhere near as much death and destruction as they caused without a global war as cover for their deeds. As for Churchill and Roosevelt, they were all too eager to raise the stakes, and their strategy of slow victory via starvation blockade and aerial civilian bombing was absolutely guaranteed to cause the maximum destruction of the poor minorities trapped within Nazi rule. There’s more to say here, but I don’t want to repeat myself … again, please read Baker’s book (and let me know what you think, once you do).

    The horrible mistake of World War II began twenty-five years before, when the nations of Europe stupidly stumbled into World War I. Incredibly, some people today think it was “the good war”. Not for anybody who was trapped by it. My serious conclusion, after many years of research into the history of the era, is that Gandhi’s answers about World War II were better than anybody else’s at the time. His hope was that people on all sides of the looming war would listen to his sane warnings and ratchet down the tensions that were leading to war. Unfortunately, his quiet voice was barely heard.

  12. An epidemic of terrible
    An epidemic of terrible monuments has been cropping up on the Mall. A Maoist looking MLK and a Mussolini looking WWII memorial, don’t even get me started on the abomination planned to honor Eisenhower, which I guess is meant to capture the chaos, waste, and sprawl the highway programs unleashed.

  13. Yeah, Nardo, I heard that
    Yeah, Nardo, I heard that this MLK monument is getting a lot of criticism on artistic grounds. I didn’t get into that topic with this article, but I don’t disagree with you about the aesthetics of the monument. For me, though, seeing it as part of an enthusiastic crowd helped me view it in a positive light.

    I like the small statue of Mahatma Gandhi in New York City’s Union Square rather more.

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