Monday, January 21, 2013

The Contradictions of MLK

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...
Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deutsch: 1964: Martin Luther King Português: Martin Luther King (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The handy thing about dead people is how flexible they are.

People can state, "So-and-So would have wanted this (or hated this, or supported this)," and since So-and-So isn't around to vocalize his own opinion, the speaker conveniently gets to attach So-and-So's stamp of approval to his own position.

When I think of Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., I always think of nonviolence.

“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”

I find it ludicrous that some people claim, in the Great Gun Debate now ongoing, that MLK would support the right for crazy people to have assault rifles. And yet...

from Adam Winkler: MLK and His Guns
Most people think King would be the last person to own a gun. Yet in the mid-1950s, as the civil rights movement heated up, King kept firearms for self-protection. In fact, he even applied for a permit to carry a concealed weapon...

William Worthy, a journalist who covered the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reported that once, during a visit to King's parsonage, he went to sit down on an armchair in the living room and, to his surprise, almost sat on a loaded gun. Glenn Smiley, an adviser to King, described King's home as "an arsenal."

As I found researching my new book, Gunfight, in 1956, after King's house was bombed, King applied for a concealed carry permit in Alabama. The local police had discretion to determine who was a suitable person to carry firearms. King, a clergyman whose life was threatened daily, surely met the requirements of the law, but he was rejected nevertheless. At the time, the police used any wiggle room in the law to discriminate against African Americans...

Eventually, King gave up any hope of armed self-defense and embraced nonviolence more completely. 
 I also think of Dr. King as being, in my mental image of him, as extremely supportive of women and women's rights. Wasn't he fighting for freedom for all oppressed people? And doesn't that include women?

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

And yet...

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
from Teaching Tolerance: Sexism in the Civil Rights Movement:
Dyson quotes civil rights activist Bernard Lee as saying: "Martin … was absolutely a male chauvinist. He believed that the wife should stay home and take care of the babies while he'd be out there in the streets."

from Hipstercrite: In the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Reading about Daisy Bates made me think of all the unsung women of the Civil Rights Movement who often are left standing in the shadow of Martin Luther King Jr. Not to discount the inspiration and dedication King gave to the movement, but it is disheartening to know that there are many strong and brave women who also sacrificed so much yet are often left out of the history books. It broke my heart to hear about the women who were honored and spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, yet were not invited to any meeting between civil rights leaders and government dignitaries.

English: Photograph of Rosa Parks with Dr. Mar...
English: Photograph of Rosa Parks with Dr. Martin Luther King jr. (ca. 1955) Mrs. Rosa Parks altered the negro progress in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, by the bus boycott she unwillingly began. National Archives record ID: 306-PSD-65-1882 (Box 93). Source: Ebony Magazine  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It certainly appears that Rosa Parks and other "mothers" of the Civil Rights Movement were shoved to the side while the menfolk took center stage and credit.  Given her prominence and capabilities following her husband's death, it appears that Coretta Scott King was capable of much more than raising babies and ironing shirts.

Then there's the issue of King's extra-marital affairs - does it mean disrespect for women, for his wife in particular, or was it a personal moral failing? From Ralph David Abernathy's And the Walls Came Tumbling Down:
Martin and I were away more often than we were at home; and while this was no excuse for extramarital relations, it was a reason. Some men are better able to bear such deprivations than others, though all of us in SCLC headquarters had our weak moments. We all understood and believed in the biblical prohibition against sex outside of marriage. It was just that he had a particularly difficult time with that temptation.

Some people would say that I am "running down" Dr. King. No.  I do think, over time, MLK has become a larger-than-life figure, godlike and heroic - and he was heroic, in many ways. He was also somebody capable of changing his mind (over guns), capable of weakness and yes, deception, and vulnerable to the attitudes (sexism) of his time.

King was very, very human.  He was not a saint, attaining levels of moral amplitude  no modern man nor woman can ever dream of attaining. We can reach for the same dreams he did, push for reforms in our government and our society, and not chicken out because we, too, are flawed and imperfect.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We can postulate where Dr. King would stand on gun control (I'm guessing, being assassinated and all, he would not be in favor of deranged people having easy access to weapons), women's rights, gay rights, and poverty, but truly, we can never know for sure.  He might even have become one of those cranky "Get off my lawn!" geezers.

Even though he wasn't perfect, even though we are not perfect, we can learn much from the man.

“Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But, conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right.

Have you ever felt you shouldn't speak up about injustice because you're not the hero-type?
What are your thoughts, on this holiday that isn't, quite? 
(I'm working my day job, alas.)

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