Saturday, April 5, 2008

Will the Real MLK Please Stand Up?

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, what would he be like? How would we treat his message and accomplishments?

Would we admire him as America's most important civil rights leader? Would his message of America's unrealized goodness be honored, or would his later days of personal turmoil be evidence for the radical set which sees America - despite 40 years of progress after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and decades of affirmative action - as an unmitigated evil, an irredeemable enormity, the greatest stain on human progress in world history?

Unfortunately, the revisionists are pressing the latter case.
As I noted yesterday, to hear it now, Jeremiah Wright was speaking truth to power, just restating the case on America's evil that was established unimpeachably by Martin Luther King on the eve of his death.

Apparently that's the message of Dr. King's assassination, that the civil rights leader had to be silenced, because the reactionary white establishment risked losing authoritarian control amid the window dressing of change the rights revolution of the 1960s now apparently represents. For example, see the embrace of King's later uncertainties by Kai Wright over at American Prospect, "
Dr. King, Forgotten Radical":

Generations after the man's murder, our efforts to look back on his life too often say more about our own racial fantasies and avoidances than they do about his much-discussed dream. And they obscure a deeply radical worldview that remains urgently important to Americans' lives. Today, I don't mourn King's death so much as I do his abandoned ideas.

We've all got reason to avoid the uncomfortable truths King shoved in the nation's face. It's a lot easier for African Americans to pine for his leadership than it is to accept our own responsibility for creating the radicalized community he urged upon us. And it's more comfortable for white America to reduce King's goals to an idyllic meeting of little black boys and little white girls than it is to consider his analysis of how white supremacy keeps that from becoming reality.
What I see when I read essays like this is the left's project to reduce the successes of the civil rights movement to a footnote, to a few pieces of legislation that put a happy face on America's essential banality of hegemonic state oppression and violence.

The changes of the 1960s were, of course, revolutionary. This is not objectively in doubt. What's now happening in activism and scholarship is to argue for an "
incomplete revolution," which puts the onus back on the system of an alleged structural white supremacy to expand even further the legislative and policy regime of racial reparations that's been in place since Dr. King's early successes in forcing the nation to live up to the moral promise of the creed.

It's never enough, though. As long as there are dividends to be paid, racial victimization will be the modus operandi of the hardline forces of the radical left.

Rick Pearstein, for example,
has exerpted portions for his writings which he claims provide proof of some enormously irretrievable evil in the country, where white supremacist, no doubt, continue to hold forth throughout the country's halls of power.

Pearstein even congratulates himself:

I'm so, so proud to be a historian today, and to be able to do my own little part to wrench Martin Luther King's awesome radicalism out of the the blood-crusted arms of grubby clowns like David Brooks who dare try to embrace him.
Is Pearlstein an academic historian, or a journalist? Can we trust his "wrenching" of King's radicalism from the arms of the white power structure.

The historian versus journalist distinction's important, as David Noon argues, in attacking the credibility of Juan Williams' thesis on racial victimology:
Williams' hackery deserves considerably more attention than it tends to receive. Though his work on Eyes on the Prize seems to have given him a permanent and inflated custodial sense of The True Meaning of the Civil Rights Movement, actual historians generally regard him as a joke.
Noon provides no evidence that "actual historians" do any such thing, although as an "actual" political scientist, I can tell you that actual academic research (here and here, for example) backs up many of Williams points, and conservative bloggers know a deligitmation campaign when they see one:

Long before the left-leaning journalist wrote “Enough,” a book with a decidedly conservative slant, Williams was considered a turncoat, his support for policies like affirmative action notwithstanding. One would assume that a man who penned “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965,” the companion volume to the award-winning PBS series of the same name, would be immune from such charges. But his conservative-like views on taboo issues leave him wide open for insults.
In any case, back to MLK.

Dr. King faced debilitating personal crises in his late 1960s activism, and his legacy of racial progress can't be accurately evaluated without recognizing the totality of his circumstances. As
David Brooks pointed out yesterday:

The key tension in King’s life was over how to push relentlessly for change but within an existing moral structure. But by the late-60s many felt the social structure needed to be torn down. The assassin’s bullet set off a conflagration.

At King’s funeral, the marshals told the throngs that nobody should chew gum because it would look undignified. But niceties like that were obsolete.

Building the social fabric after the disruption of that period has been the work of the subsequent generations — weaving the invisible web of family, neighborhood and national obligations so that people stay in school, attend to their kids and have an opportunity to rise if they play by the rules.

Progress has been slow. Nearly a third of American high school students don’t graduate (half in the cities). Seventy percent of African-American kids are born out of wedlock. Poverty rates in Memphis have scarcely dropped.

Martin Luther King Jr. at least left behind a model of how to repair the social fabric. He was scholarly, formal, assertive and meticulously self-controlled in public. If Barack Obama’s presidential campaign represents anything, it is the triumph of King’s early-60s style of activism over the angry and reckless late-60s style. King was in crisis when he was gunned down. But his inspiration is outlasting his critics.
For more on the left's embellishment of King's "radicalism," see Memeorandum.

See also, "
King Prophecies Foreshadowed Obama and Wright, Says Dyson."