Martin Luther King Jr. – The Ideal American Negro

This is a short piece that I wrote in 2018 for Martin’s national “holiday”. My feelings have not been altered one iota in 2019.

Martin Luther King Jr. is now the ideal Negro in American consciousness, especially in the mind of the State, not because of his religious voice which condemned state-sponsored violence against African-Americans and American imperialism with equal erudition, but quite simply because his is dead, and thus just as dead men “tell no lies”, neither do they “start no revolutions”.

Martin is no longer here to speak for himself, and the State along with the powers that be, are more than eager to eulogize him, sing his praises despite the glaring fact that both did all within their considerable powers to silence him; forever. And therefore today, if Martin meant anything to me — and I daresay, to you — then let us not participate and aggrandize the myth of Martin but remember what he so humbly stood for: a God-centered cry for justice.

I leave these words of the Vincent W. Lloyd, scholar of race and secularism, from Race and Secularism in America, for reflection,

“Thirty feet high, arms folded, with a steady, piercing gaze, Martin Luther King Jr. now stands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Completed in 2011, the King memorial seals the embrace of the once controversial leader by those across the political spectrum. Barack Obama presided at the memorial’s opening, but it was Ronald Reagan who signed into law a bill making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday after it passed with bipartisan support in Congress. Ornamenting King’s tall figure are fourteen engraved quotations from his sermons, speeches, and writings. Justice, love, and peace are recurring themes. ‘We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ ‘I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.’ ‘True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.’ Amazingly, nowhere among these quotations is there mention of God, sin, Jesus, heaven, or hell. King the Christian preacher is absent. Even more astounding, there is no mention of the plight of the African American community for which King so vehemently fought. The only mention of race is in a quotation suggesting that King advocated forgetting it: ‘Our loyalties must transcend our race.’ King’s mainstream success, it seems, has come at the cost of his own religious and racial identity. Or, put another way, the careful management of race and religion are the prerequisite for accepting the public significance of a fundamentally raced religious figure. That there is significance to the pairing race and religion, managed together, is the thesis probed in this book.”

Martin Luther King Jr. did not speak in secular, race-neutral language. He preached, and he preached from his position as a black American. He preached about the law of God, the damnation of sinners, and divine omnipotence. He preached and spoke from the Bible. In his final speech, delivered on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, King imagines a conversation with God, invokes the classical American form of the jeremiad (troubles today, possibilities tomorrow), cites Amos, describes his miraculous survival from an assassination attempt, prophesies his own death, and concludes, ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!’ King speaks in the first person plural about black Americans: ‘We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world…. We are saying that we are God’s children.’ In short, from his days as a young preacher coming up in the Baptist church where his father ministered to his last days supporting a public-sector union, King’s critical voice was not just a moral voice. It was a theological voice, a black theological voice. This is the voice muted and managed by the secular and postracial regime of America in 2011.”

The following is a 30-minute video in which I discuss Martin and MLK Day in light of Lloyd’s book.