On the occurrence of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we once again reflect on his legacy and meaning for today. My contention is that King’s legacy serves, as Obama did for a brief time when he ran for President, as a “blank screen, upon which Americans of vastly different political stripes project their desires.” Dr. King has become our everyman, like the effect that a poem by John Ashbery has on its reader. Ashbery’s poems, in the tradition of Whitman, appeal to an audience that knows no end, a universal American. They, like King’s project are written in the collective American imagination, anchored only to the idea that we’re all connected somehow.
But how can King-as-everyman not become pacified? How might the luster of his project, which presents a fresh critique in the now, not end up in the dream of a constantly deferred future? Perhaps the answer is in his embrace of Christianity as a universal call to truth.
I’d like to argue that King’s status as the blank screen we project our desires onto par excellence, is based on the success of his Christian universalism. Just as Badiou and Agamben have sought support for the birth of universalism in St. Paul’s foundation of the Christian community of brotherhood, King pulled from classical sources (St. Augustine, the Sermon on the Mount and liberation theology) to plead his case for combining the universal values inherent in the Christian message to the founding documents of the U.S. Constitution.
I posit that it’s not King’s early civil rights movement and the legislative success that it achieved which serves as the reason his status of everyman is so pronounced, rather, it is his status as a moral voice that makes it so.
But in recent years, particularly with two separate phenomena occurring, King has moved from everyman to blank screen. I see these two phenomena as the ending of the welfare state and the election of President Obama.
1. The slow and steady de-compartmentalizing of the welfare state, which is how I read King’s beloved community – as a well functioning welfare state that lives in harmony. We now have charities taking the lead in commemorating King through service projects – which are great – don’t get me wrong, I used to organize them on a national level, but they are part of the blank screen effect. The direction that we are taking our country – into rugged individualism, abusive free market capitalism, material wealth obsession, and a huge gap between rich and poor, would cause King to align with movements that are proposing radical systemic changes.
2. In a recent analysis of King’s politics and activism, From Civil Rights to Human Rights
Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice, we find that King was actually not the moderate that we made him out to be while he was alive. In fact, through analysis of his speeches, essays, and other writings shows that his politics indeed goes beyond the tolerant multicultural “I have a dream speech”. Since Obama became President, we have experienced what Rev. Sekou refers to as the death of black politics in America, a compelling argument, but one that is weighed specifically to black Americans.
The fact is that King’s battle against systemic racism is still with us, but Obama’s election ups the ante and enshrouds our ability to tackle it further.
From Everyman to Black Screen
The distinction between these two modes of remembering and preserving King are slight. The everyman version of King remembrance is based on the idea that his project speaks for itself – let us access it without the interference of corporate commemorations and multicultural commemorations – let us envision the beloved community as something bigger and different – let us recognize that we don’t have it, nor are we close to having it. In terms of resisting the blank screen metaphor for King commemoration, let us avoid the temptation to obscure, distort, and run interference on who King was. Revisit the sources – be empirical. His life was more well documented than was Jesus Christ’s.
Overall, understanding why King moved from serving as our everyman to the blank screen is a testament to the desire we lack in leadership today. Sure, we have inspiring leaders, but we don’t have a leader that can truly transcend issues and speak to undergirding problems that we face as a nation. Americans have been so far removed from real issues.
As people committed to social justice and supportive of movements such as Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and so on, we find it odd that certain people might question whether King would even be supportive of these movements today. Of course he would. Tahrir Square, the Arab Spring, and now Occupy Wall Street have been criticized by many, but mainly by Baby Boomers on the grounds that they are not encouraging leaders to emerge and serve as both spokespeople to the American public, as well as an inspiring role.
But what of the other civil rights leaders of King’s time that are still alive today – what do they stand for today, or what have they done to continue the legacy? My contention is that they too have been unable to assume a top-down leadership role that can break the deadlock we find ourselves in, clearly this is the case.
Of course there is Congressman John Lewis, and Senator Jesse Jackson, but people like Jeremiah Wright, who have a critique that I would put on level with King’s are pushed out of the media without a moment’s hesitation.
The only reason that we think (today) that King was radical (back then) is because we have lost touch with what radical is all about today. Don’t hold your breath, of course there is Occupy Wall Street, and major growths and evolutions in social movements globally. But I would argue that people like us who are concerned with the Arab Spring and its success, as well as Occupy’s success, we also see King as perhaps the last leader who effectively led a social movement in a top-down structure.
We have to face the reality that we’re in a network-driven society now. Media pays attention to global calamities as if they were a program on a channel that has a shelf life. We must adapt. To wage a blanketing criticism that we need charismatic leaders to represent social movements is one thing, and it would probably make some difference, but my argument is that things are too directed towards affinity groups in social movements for this strategy to actually work.
Part of the reason why Occupy Wall Street does not have an intellectual leadership that is vocal and in the public square can be traced to the death of the public intellectual, for good background read Jacoby’s book, The Last Intellectuals. But King was not an intellectual in the Marxist-Trotsky-socialist mold which had spawned the New Left after May 68. In fact, King was criticized by these leaders for his moderation.
I don’t want a radical left intellectual to take the public stage and capture the American public’s imagination – because I don’t think dogmatic positions are going to work, nor do charismatic leaders function well any more in public space, but I think that we should fight to keep King as an everyman alive and well – because as an everyman, King is accesible, and his message is resonant, relevant, and important.