A version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. In its own way, it commemorates African American History Month. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.
Dr. King is likely the American thinker who comes to my mind more than any other. Not the populist who was culturally moderated over time into a convenient character for classroom posters. But the difficult and complicated and tortured man, the leader who was flawed and inspiring and masterful in so many ways.
When a MLK quote rattles in my head, it isn’t his iconic, if tired, classic: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pulled from its context, that’s always seemed to me to be too universal to stir. Instead, it comforts, and I’ve found always found MLK misunderstood when he’s seen as a comforting.
At some point in the last couple years, I shared that I feel tortured by his condemning “white moderates.” Famously King does that in his saber-rattling “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” which is one of the only things I remember reading in high school. I recall my worldview expanding three times larger at 16 or 17 simply because I read that.
Several years back, SACMW and I took a long Valentine’s Day weekend to Birmingham, Alabama. Sitting in our frigid rental car outside the nondescript location where King started that legendary missive, I pulled the text up on my phone. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.”
Order over justice.
It’s as chilling to me now as then. For as much as that passage is imprinted in me, it’s not what I understand to be his most powerfully subversive act of writing.
About 15 years ago, I spent most of a bewildering (if important) month shoveling compost at an ascetic Trappist monastery. I was looking for something and thought it might be in a rural corner of the American South. Speech and meals were limited; we were meant to focus on our relationship to God. I brought a handful of books that I tore through, sometimes deep in the woods and other times sitting on the uncomfortable cot in my room (it was an upgrade over the wooden bench most of the monks used). Among the books was the Malcolm X biography written with Alex Haley and MLK’s autobiography.
It was then that I first confronted the idea that King’s command of language and metaphor left me feeling outmatched for this complicated world. This is what a master is, I thought. Someone who could shake me a half-century later from the distant shores of a library book.
Years earlier he stood in front of 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial to deliver his most familiar speech. His climax deserves every bit of acclaim it receives. But it’s earlier in his “I Have a Dream” that I consider among the most powerful and motivating words I have ever heard. I think of them — no posturing here — at least once a month when I am confronted with some decision.
I heard them again on Monday. Each year for MLK Day, our company aims to do some day of service. This year, we encouraged staff to participate in their own day of service close to their hearts, and others of us gathered for a rendition of that speech at a nearby museum. I knew it was coming and still it stuck with me, a phrase I first came across in high school and dug further into in some monastery and thought about in a sad corner of Birmingham and approach each year about this time. He said: “This is no time… to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
As I get older the idea of “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” gets harder for me to confront.
Today is my birthday. For the first time, I took the day off from work, pushing meetings and deadlines back to pause. No travel or elaborate plans. I wanted to do some reading and writing — and eating. I think this is a good way to take the day: to take time to be proud and relax and reflect. But of course that itself is a considerable privilege.
The old saying goes that “one man’s Freedom Fighter is another man’s terrorist.” A different version rings for me: “one man’s Freedom Fighter is another man’s moderate.”
We know social media puts on display our signaling and social virtue like never before. You can literally quantify support by button pushing on Twitter. There’s now an entire class of people who swarm these platforms to outdo each other, both progressives and conservatives. They get social capital if they stay ahead of each other. If someone pauses to reflect, it can be questioned as a lack of credentials. It’s an opening to get OWNED. I’ve spent hours reviewing the wreckage of someone torn apart on social for an uncomfortable perspective. I try to learn. Sometimes I’m uncertain of the diagnosis.
I’ve been thinking how King, a man whom I so deeply admire, would view this state of things. Maybe he would find this social pressure effective for speeding progress. Twitter just might be the most effective tool we’ve ever had for burning moderate white privilege to the ground. Sure, it starts inch-deep, but fire has a way of digging deeper. In that case, my discomfort with these platforms might put me squarely in a camp of white moderates who have spent most of modern human history protecting institutionalized comforts for their gain and others’ loss.
There is another reading of King though.
That reading might argue that his career of compromising wasn’t just a symptom of steeper 20th century bigotry. But a kind of pragmatism endemic among dealmakers. (Remember in his ‘Letter,’ King writes that he has “almost reached the regrettable conclusion…”) King swung at white privilege. But he was also a coalition builder. That’s what let him drift into centrist American consciousness in a way that Malcolm X would have found abhorrent. It’s why, for better or for worse, King is in every American classroom. He’s been sanitized, yes, but he also did considerable work to get there.
In this way, I could also imagine an aging King (he would be just 89 years old today) being attacked on Twitter. Perhaps someone would post a photo of him lunching with power brokers or leak audio of him stumbling with trans-friendly language. Maybe King would interrupt a progressive cause with a bit of nuance. Some rising activist might say King had himself fallen victim to that tranquilizing drug. Surely the activist would get the most retweets if she showed the most invective, or had the snappiest snark.
What wouldn’t be quantified would be those who felt uncertain about her approach and the rotten moment we’re in. There’s no metric for wariness. I feel as fortunate now as ever to have old words to read and consider for these new challenges.
(Photo above of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial via Unsplash by Brian Kruas)