Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The King is Dead, Long Live the King! - Grappling with the Legacy of MLK

Dr. King, tu es vengé!

I

The late Martin Luther King, Jr. has received a somewhat unusual amount of attention in recent months. Typically a staple of middle school assignments on the civil rights movement, the mainstream media seems to have caught wind that his legacy is worth discussing, even superficially. Early in this April was the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s tragic assassination in Memphis, prompting the usual annual, if cursory, recap of the man and his legacy. Much more focus, however, was placed upon him during President Obama’s recent inauguration, as that event occurred on January 21, 2013, which happened to be Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This inexorably led to many comparisons between Obama and Dr. King, both charismatic leaders in their own right.

While it was mostly the media casually tossing around superficial comparisons of the two figures, Obama did little to discourage such comparisons by using a personal bible of Dr. King’s for his swearing-in ceremony. This was not the first direct link Obama has made to Dr. King and the civil rights movement. He also famously replaced a bust of Winston Churchill kept by George W. Bush in the Oval Office for one of Dr. King and keeps various paraphernalia from the civil rights movement in the White House

Since Obama is the first president of African descent, many can’t but help make connections between him and Dr. King. Many consider it a testament of how much progress America has made and how much King’s legacy – and dream – lives on in the present day. During Obama second inauguration an observer commented, “this is the dream that Dr. King talked about in his speech. We see history in the making.” Dr. King’s dream is thus fulfilled for many. We have a black president – civil rights have arrived.

For the occasion of the 57th Presidential Inauguration Barack Obama chose not only the bible used by Dr. King, but also the famed Lincoln Bible. Obama had used the Lincoln Bible four years before, at his first inauguration. This time around, however, the tone was different. Ours is a country divided, the Lincoln Bible boldly proclaimed, and Obama intends to unite it. This fed the sentiments, fueled by Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln, that we live in an era fraught with political division and are in need of a Lincoln-like leader to mend our country’s wounds. Obama is clearly that figure. By evoking Lincoln, Obama hoped to propose that he is such a leader.

By invoking the twin figures of Lincoln and Dr. King, Obama thus likened himself not only to the great uniter, Lincoln, but the great crusader for justice, Dr. King. As a black president, Obama was part Lincoln, part Dr. King – both made new, and newly relevant, for the 21st century.

At the inauguration, historical connections were the choice du jour. Not only did Obama bind himself to Lincoln and Dr. King, but in his speech he also voiced his support for historical civil rights struggles across the centuries: 
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. 
After his speech, many took the Seneca Falls-Selma-Stonewall triptych to be a rallying cry to renew civil rights in the 21st century (particular for LGBTQ rights). By listing them off, one after the other, Obama invoked each historical moment like rosary beads, forming a secular prayer for social justice. And there is a fourth facet that Obama reminded us of, which is perhaps the most important: “It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began.”

Boisterous rhetoric and partisan clamoring aside, how does Obama stand by his own metric? If we hold him to his own words, in what way are we, is he, carrying on the legacy that those pioneers began? With the evocation of Dr. King in January and the somber remembrance of his passing in in April, now is as good a time as any to revisit Dr. King’s legacy and reexamine our dedication to it in the present.

How has Obama upheld the legacy of the man he seeks to associate with and claim as an inspiration for American leadership? In a word: badly. Dr. King’s prophetic vision has been effectively transformed into a corporate policy on workplace diversity. We still teach Dr. King’s message to youths, but only those small sound bytes that conform to the overriding capitalist ideology that directs America. Cornel West has described Obama’s act as a taming of Dr. King’s message by placing his hand on it. We should instead let his prophetic vision be free and be heard. We won’t let it be “sanitized, deodorized, and sterilized." 

II

Obama cannot be entirely faulted for this failure to uphold Dr. King’s legacy because the American people have generally failed to uphold it as well. The legacy of the late Dr. King has been troubled since his untimely assassination, or even before. In the Los Angeles Review of Books Vorris Nunley points out that Dr. King effectively died in 1963, not in 1968, immediately after he delivered the “I Have a Dream Speech." After all, Dr. King’s legacy is essentially “frozen in time – his later politics dulled of its edginess, stripped of its demand for introspection on the part of both the oppressor and the oppressed.” The five years between that speech and his assassination at Memphis’s Lorraine Motel are mostly ignored. The Dr. King that limped forward after the “I Have a Dream Speech” and the legacy that emanated from it is cruelly zombie-like. It is, as The Wilsonian has argued a stone legacy, half-killed, half-memorialized. It is distorted and, occasionally, entirely silenced.

The Dr. King that we have come to know and love in the late-20th and early-21st century is unrecognizable from the man himself. His legacy portrays him as easily consumable, politically impotent, and a champion of peace above all, even justice. This defanged, stone-like Dr. King does little service to the potent message of social justice proclaimed by the man during his vibrant life.

Dr. King has been cast in stone in Washington, rather than resurrected. Stone Dr. King is a paralyzed, fetishized, and impotent figurehead for bourgeois conformity. We the people must subvert this shameless attempt to silence him by reaching into the latent democratic urges of the collective unconscious to connect Dr. King's struggle to many struggles, past, present, and future, which his urgent message speaks to directly. The state - and Obama by extension – silences him by casting him in stone and burying him in history. But, as Walter Benjamin once said, “Doesn’t a breath of the air that pervaded earlier days caress us as well? In the voices we hear, isn’t there an echo of now silent ones?” We hear the echo of Dr. King, and it is our task to redeem him for the present.

This fetishized stone monument – both the figurative one in the bourgeois imagination and the literal, material one in Washington – serves as the perpetual reminder of this attempt to silence that must be resisted. This frozen idol must be blasted apart and thus blasted out of history. Freed from the chains of the past, Dr. King’s legacy will be allowed to enter into historical and political constellations with the present and wreak havoc on the ideologies of power, exploitation, and discrimination and undo the state apparatuses that ensure his message is censored, distorted, and silenced. 

III

There is no better evidence that Dr. King’s legacy is in critical danger of being lost than the fact that on the 45th anniversary of his assassination, early in April 2013, there are those who are fighting for the very causes he espoused. Not in a general sense either – Memphis sanitation workers are marching in solidarity and threatening to strike in 2013 just as they were in 1968. Time flies in the eternal present of bourgeois time. When Dr. King was murdered he was in Memphis advocating on that very issue. The hollow suits in Washington and on Wall Street may have heard King’s message of racial integration, but his call for economic equality and collective bargaining fell on deaf ears. This de-fanged, politically impotent Dr. King that we remember today hardly resembles the King that lived, breathed, marched, and fought day after day for all issues of civil rights.

The matter at hand is not one of debating about what Dr. King actually stood for, but rather about how we choose to remember King. It is easy to reshape memories of bygone eras. Those with the power to shape narrative and bend it to their will quickly distort the retrospect gaze of history. In this spirit, Dr. King’s message turned from fervent crusade for racial and economic equality to Kumbaya platitudes from quotes taken out of context. Yes, in his “I Have a Dream” speech Dr. King spoke of his hope that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” But to make this the entire message of the man is to reify his stone image. Or worse, it makes Dr. King into an Uncle Tom that distorts rather than preserves his legacy.

The Dr. King who we don’t often hear of said many things that may make modern readers uncomfortable. His rhetoric, unlike Obama’s, does not bow to political correctness or centrist predictability. In his famed 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he wrote, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be.” Dr. King the extremist has been almost entirely lost in the 45 years since his death, and the 5 before that when he was not just speaking of little boys and girls but was deeply critical of American empire.

The “I Have a Dream” speech is rightly iconic – it has an unparalleled message of hope that few could summon with such skill as that great orator. But Dr. King’s was not message of pure hope, but instead a negative and deeply critical message for those who bandy about words like democracy, freedom, and justice but have little interest in upholding their ideals.

The critically negative, rather than blandly positive, Dr. King is the one who was perhaps the most passionate and invigorating. The Dr. King who saw our injustices and called us to speak for our sins. The Dr. King who, as Marx said, desired to “show the world what it was fighting for,” and thus reveal that “the world has long been dreaming of something that it can acquire if only it becomes conscious of it.” Those who looked upon President Obama’s second inauguration and saw it the embodiment of Dr. King’s dreams will be deeply disappointed. Dr. King dreamed bigger than little boys and girls, bigger than the presidency, and certainly bigger than Obama. 

IV 

Who was this extremist Dr. King and what did he stand for? And, more pertinently, why has his potent message been lost through the decades? Few are aware of Dr. King’s robust support of labor rights and his trenchant rejection of capitalism. Capitalism remains that one topic which is mostly off limits for criticism in America. It can be gently critiqued only in terms of how it can be improved, but those who call for its abolition are shunned. While Dr. King was never formally part of a socialist or communist party, he didn’t think twice about aligning himself with socialists such as A. Philip Randolph.

Dr. King faced fire hoses, police dogs, the butt ends, and, finally, the barrel of, the gun, and he wasn’t afraid to criticize America where it is most sensitive. In his 1964 speech “Why We Can’t Wait” Dr. King insisted, “Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.” This criticism of capitalist exploitation is equally valid 50 years after he made those comments. Racism is to be deplored, but economic inequality is entirely tolerated. In a country in which just a few percent of the population posses the lion’s share of wealth it is still somewhat taboo to openly discuss wealth inequality. President Obama, who so badly seeks to be identified with Dr. King, only gently brought up the matter of wealth inequality during his reelection campaign and hardly broached the topic of poverty even all.

In his landmark 1967 speech  “Beyond Vietnam” Dr. King insisted that we “as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” We must shift, he argued, from a “thing-oriented society” to a “person-oriented society.” Criticizing dehumanizing profit-seekers he said, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

This revolution in values, he argued, “will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.” We will soon observe, “with righteous indignation,” the injustice of “individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money…only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.” We will come to understand the exploitation and the whole sickness of such a society and finally say, "This is not just."

We live in a world that valorizes compassion, yet little true compassion can be found. “True compassion” he argued, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” We must, he insisted, “question the capitalistic economy” as a whole. We can no longer limit our questions to local issues of inequality, but instead we must “ask question about the whole society,” that produces beggars. Who owns the oil, the iron ore, and the water sources, asked Dr. King. When such questions are raised, “you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.”

Dr. King had a knack for revolutionaries questioning, and this spirit of criticism has been lost in his legacy. He was one of the greatest 20th-century critics of capitalism and yet this still goes unrecognized. Perhaps this is because it is difficult to include quotes from Dr. King in corporate policies on racial diversity while he vehemently attacks the very ideology you support.

Dr. King marched not just for racial justice, but economic justice too. He was assassinated while in Memphis to march for striking sanitation workers fighting for better wages and humane treatment. He was there supporting the local branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the very group that organized the 2013 strikes for Memphis sanitation workers.

So we must answer Dr. King’s question, what kind of extremists will we be? As he said, “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?" In that same letter, he also wrote, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” We must be the kind of extremists that demand love, demand justice, and demand freedom without expecting that it will so easily be granted.

Perhaps anticipating the treatment of his legacy, Dr. King argued that the real adversaries of freedom were not the rabid racists and the tyrannical capitalists, but rather the white moderates. Those moderates who understood and agreed with the need for justice but who “constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” These paternalistic liberals are “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” as they prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” This hardly sounds like the Uncle Tom figure that many white moderates prop up to justify their inaction and apathy towards justice. Yet this Uncle Tom figure is undoubtedly the Dr. King they will laud on anniversaries of his birth and death, pretending that Dr. King’s legacy has anything to offer but serious political potency for our present moment and future progress.

King’s message was important enough that his legacy deserves to be rehabilitated. There may no longer be “White’s Only” water fountains, blacks no longer must sit in the back of the bus, and yes, we do have a president with African ancestors. But his legacy, the legacy enumerated above, is in grave danger. It must be rehabilitated, redeemed really, for the very same reason that sanitation workers are currently striking in Memphis for labor rights. For the very reason that John Lewis, a civil rights hero himself, was spit on just a few years ago by protesters when trying to pass the Affordable Care Act. For the reason that the Voting Rights Act is under fire, politicians redraw district maps, and place fresh barriers for predominantly black and Latino voters. It must be redeemed for the reason that, from Memphis to Madison, collective bargaining continues to be seen as Western decadence rather than a fundamental right.  Ultimately, Dr. King’s legacy must be redeemed for the redemption of America itself.

Dr. King, cast in stone, has been silenced. And as he once said, "A time comes when silence is betrayal." Ultimately, our failure to uphold Dr. King’s legacy amounts to an incredible betrayal of what should be esteemed American values. Criticism of power, inequality, exploitation, and violence are what America claims to be founded upon. But the America of today, as Dr. King lamented, is the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” Those who fetishize Dr. King also fetishize figures such as Lincoln and the Founding Fathers. By fetishizing them their message too is lost. Their revolutionary spirit for life, liberty, and the pursuit of taxes is vacuum-packed into predictable platitudes about diversity and economic policy. It is up to those who genuinely care about the real legacy of such revolutionary pioneers to bring their message back into focus and to carry on what they began. 

V

To adequately address the silencing of Dr. King’s true legacy it is necessary to explore not only what the man stood for but also how society remembers legacies in general. How do events long passed reach the waiting ears of the present? How can what has transpired affect what is to transpire? Collective memory itself is at stake.

 After Hegel historicized philosophy Marx became the first major critic of collective memory, especially for politics. After remembrance featured tangentially in a number of his works he decided to make it the focus of his 1852 essay, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.”  This essay attempted to theorize the Revolutions of 1848 that had recently failed to provide a serious political upheaval in Europe. When writing about their lack of success, Marx chose to theorize present (or the recent past) by way of theorizing past events for the benefit of future revolutions. This connection between present, past, and future became the trademark debate in Marxism and critical theory. The historical constellations that form from events throughout history become like signposts pointing the way toward potential futures.

Marx located the primary predicament of unsuccessful revolutions in the fact that they all too often seemed intent on simply repeating the events of the past. He quips, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” Revolutionaries, like those of 1848 (and to update this we could now say 1968), facilely enter into the perverted cycle of history, acting as historical laughing stocks rather than serious political game-changers.

Marx saw this historical tragic farce as something that has plagued humanity for millennia. Bourgeois revolutionaries, he claimed, all too quickly “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past,” use their slogans, borrow their costumes, and adopt their methods. He saw this behavior in Martin Luther – who borrowed the guise of Paul the Apostle, the French Revolution – which mimicked the styles of the Classical Rome, and the 1848 Revolutions – which looked to the French Revolution for guidance. Political agitators fail to produce genuine political and historical change because of their unoriginality and the inability to shed the fashions of the past and forge their own way into the future.

If all hitherto revolutions have been farcical regurgitations of prior events, then how should we proceed? How can we break the historical cycle of tragedy-farce? Marx’s solution is to simply forget the past. “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” intones Marx. We must “Let the dead bury their dead.” Only in this full break with the past can we proceed to the future. “The social revolution of the 19th century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future.” Marx’s political philosophy is thus incredibly time dependent. The past cannot communicate directly with the future. The present is the only moment that matters and we must not let it slip away.

In this view of history, we could say that the reason Dr. King’s legacy has been so tarnished is that it, simply by virtue of its being from the past, can not longer speak to the present, much less to the future. We should not draw upon Dr. King’s “poetry,” no matter how powerful and eloquent. We must write our own future-poetry, and let Dr. King’s buried remains rest in peace. Only a failure of a revolutionary would dredge up his zombie-message as a fashion and parade it around, claiming it speaks to our present moment.

A powerful counterargument to Marx comes from the 20th-century philosopher Walter Benjamin. Benjamin was a strange breed of Marxist. Though loosely affiliated with the Frankfurt School he was truly one of a kind, blending Jewish theology, German romanticism, and Marxism to make his philosophy different not only from most of his Marxist contemporaries (who he referred to as vulgar Marxists) but even his close friend at the Frankfurt School, Theodor W. Adorno.

Benjamin’s philosophy of history, and particularly of collective memory, differed sharply from Marx’s. His primary complaint with Marx was that history cannot be forgotten, no matter how much we wish it could be. Drawing indirectly from Freudian theory, Benjamin was acutely aware that nothing is truly forgotten, only buried away in the collective unconscious, eternally haunting the present. In his 1940 essay “On the Concept of History” he writes: “Doesn’t a breath of the air that pervaded earlier days caress us as well? In the voices we hear, isn’t there an echo of now silent ones?”

This breath of air, the echo of the now silent past, certainly produces nightmares on the order that Marx lamented, but Benjamin insisted that unconscious memories of the past could be used to overcome the present and blaze a path into the future. He advocated that, “nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history.” This forms a new type of historical constellation, one in which the past can be revolutionary. As writer Michael Lowy has put it, Benjaminian historicism must not be “a return to the past, but a detour through the past on the way to a utopian future.” Thus the past (as memory), and even nightmares, can become potently revolutionary if provided the chance for a Freudian working-through. The unsuccessful revolutions of the past thus failed not because they remembered the past too much, but because they failed to truly remember.

Benjamin insists that not only is remembering the past important, but we must allow these memories to enter into a critical relationship with the present to produce a revolutionary future. He often drew upon the mystic Jewish concept of tikkun, which holds that God, contained within vessels, has been shattered into pieces. It is the work of social justice to collect these shards, repair and them, and, by doing so, heal the world once again. He speaks of the Angel of History, who looks past on the past with despair, seeing not progress but instead shattered remains. “The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed,” but it is drawn irresistibly into the future. We too would like to awaken Dr. King and make whole his smashed legacy.

Traditional narrative history – what Benjamin called “bourgeois historicism” – is an insufficient form of historical memory because it only tells the narrative of the ruling class. We must instead tell the history of the downtrodden of history and seek to ensure that history does not keep going on eternally in such a fashion. As Benjamin said: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.” In this moment of activating the emergency brake, all of history becomes crystallized into a monad – a “constellation saturated with tension” – in which time itself has stopped. Only then can the dead be awakened and their legacy made whole again.

This principle of activating the emergency brake must be applied to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. His legacy hurtles through the eternal present – what Benjamin called a “progression through a homogeneous, empty time” – at an uncontrollable rate. His impotent legacy no longer conveys the message he delivered while he was living, but now that he is dead he can no longer remind us of its potency. Dr. King does still live, but in damaged form. He half-lives – he limps, zombie-like, from one platitude to the next, with the only sure outcome of his message being that it will change nothing of substance. But not everyone believes this. The striking sanitation workers in Memphis of 2013 – like those of 1968 – know better and we ought to know better too. For some King’s message lives and breathes, even if for the majority of society it spreads its zombie-message of impotent liberalism. 

VI

How can these competing theories of collective memory be made practical in the present day? How can we pull the emergency brake and go back and repair Dr. King’s legacy? Surely that is what must be done if his message is to be restored to its full revolutionary potential. His legacy must be healed, tikkun-like, and ultimately redeemed. Benjamin wrote, “only a redeemed mankind is granted the fullness of its past – which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all of its moments.” This somewhat enigmatic statement is a direct engagement with Marx’s concept of history. Marx was petrified of the continual failure of revolutions to produce satisfying results. History plodded its way through time, he said, first as tragedy, second as farce. Invoking prior historical moments, “citing” them like one might cite a quotation from a text, produced repeated failures. In Benjamin’s view though, citing history may be dangerous business, but it is the method by which truly redemptive revolutionary action comes about. The failures of the past haunt us, but, just like Dr. King, that is because that they are in desperate need of redemption. Whether we cite the French Revolution, the Revolutions of 1848, or Seneca Falls-Selma-Stonewall, the goal is the same: redemption.

Obama himself understood, even if implicitly, the concept of historical “citation” when he invoked Seneca Falls-Selma-Stonewall in his speech. By “citing” historical moments he hoped to put them into a critical relationship with the present so as to, as he said, “carry on what those pioneers began.” The other historical citation he made, this one through his actions in choosing bibles, was that of Lincoln-Dr. King-Obama. He saw himself as the direct inheritor of their historical spirit and best suited to carry out their legacies.

Quite by chance the 57th Presidential Inauguration fell not only on the anniversary of MLK Day, but also on the same day that Louis XVI was executed during the French Revolution. On the morning of January 21, 1793, Louis XVI’s formal trial ended. He was found guilty of crimes against the French people, taken to Revolution Square, and executed by way of guillotine.

This chance co-occurrence of events should not be treated lightly, as it sheds light on the nature of history itself. A new historical citation, a potent constellation, can be created: Louis XVI-Dr. King-Obama. This constellation may be coincidental, but it contains entirely entirely relevant connections, much like those of Seneca Falls-Selma-Stonewall. Citations work that way sometimes – a quote here, a passage there. Sometimes an author from long ago speaks a line so perfectly prescient we can hardly believe our eyes. The execution of Louis XVI and the further coincidence that he, like MLK, was also a “King” as well as an important leader of an empire like Obama speak volumes about our relationship with the past. The French revolutionaries certainly had a particular way of dealing with elements from the past that had gone on living far too long: the guillotine. When faced with the implacable figure of Louis XVI and the tyrannical age of monarchs that he represented, those revolutionaries sacrificed him on the altar of history. They executed the king, and when his head fell from his body the tyranny of monarchy fell from the body politic. Instead of merely the result of the untamed aggression of the mob, the execution of Louis XVI spelled the end of monarchy for all time. Perhaps not immediately, as France had its many political troubles in years to come, but it initiated a new era in history that, while still far from perfect, improved upon the previous era immensely.

We must, in the tradition of long-dead dead revolutionaries, execute the zombie-Dr. King that staggers through history. We must end the tyrannous reign of political impotence and trivial social criticism. This is what is meant by activating the emergency brake on Dr. King’s legacy and it can be done immediately, though not easily, in two separate ways.

The first is to recognize what Dr. King actually stood for and reenact his struggle in the present day. This is exactly what the 2013 Memphis sanitation workers are doing and as democratic actors that best represent the truly living and vibrant manifestation of Dr. King’s legacy. Silence is betrayal, warned Dr. King, and we, as Marx proclaimed, disdain to conceal our views and aims. Our ends can only be attained by the forcible overthrow of existing distortion of Dr. King. Let the ruling classes tremble at the true legacy of Dr. King.

The second method of redeeming Dr. King is dealing with the living manifestation of the zombie-Dr. King: Barack Obama. As mentioned, Obama himself attempts to link his legacy with that of Dr. King (as well as Lincoln). He does this quite successfully, mostly by the virtue of him being the first black president of the United States. The fact that Obama’s blackness can so simply link him to Dr. King speaks volumes of the warped message that we receive of Dr. King’s legacy. The living Dr. King wouldn’t have associated himself with someone based solely on his skin color. He would stand with him because of what he stands for. And what has Obama stood for? He bailed out poisonous corporations and catered to CEOs rather than jailing them for their crimes again the country. He’s supported measures that took jobs overseas for slave-like labor rather than paying Americans decent wages. He favors Monsanto and the Keystone XL pipeline, further degrading the environment and making climate beholden to corporate interests rather than the people. He surged in Afghanistan based on dubious evidence that it was necessary, and many thousands have died in his clandestine (and unconstitutional and undemocratic) drone war. He unquestioningly stands by Israel despite its immoral and undemocratic dealings with Palestine.

Obama has surely been a mild improvement over Republicans on issues like healthcare, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and social security. Still though, his willingness to negotiate with the social welfare of American citizens (which was on display during the latest debt ceiling and fiscal cliff dealings as well has his most recent budget proposal) would have shocked Dr. King, to whom such welfare was a prerequisite for any supposedly civilized nation. Furthermore, being so vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War, and war in general, it’s likely Dr. King would have thoroughly derided Obama simply for the fact that thousands of American soldiers and Middle Eastern civilians have died by his commands. That Dr. King would have accepted the dubious justifications of spreading democracy and supporting fragile nation states is laughable.

The Dr. King-Obama monster, like the zombie-Dr. King, must be totally extinguished if a restored Dr. King is to come forth. We must not link present figures such as Obama to the past in such an uncritical way if we are to avoid being the farce for future generations. Past, present, and future are surely linked, but not in the way that the ruling class insists they are. History does not progress so neatly, so linearly, from one moment to the next. This is the false memory of exploitation and subjugation. Such are the memories Dr. King would have disdained. On this 45th anniversary of Dr. King we must remember him, but not in the way the ruling class insists we remember him. 

VII

On April 4, 2013, the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, thousands of sanitation workers turned out to honor his legacy. They did so not by dealing in platitudes and speaking of little boys and girls getting along. They turned out, despite inclement whether, to insist on being treated like human beings and to demand their rights to justice as laborers. And while Memphis was the appropriate location for such a strike, the event had national relevance, as workers came from around the country to join in support for the sanitation workers.

The city of Memphis themselves honored the original 1968 strikers that Dr. King marched with before being shot, they even named a city street after them. But cities like Memphis, along with many Americans, would rather honor legacies by naming streets and giving speeches than by carrying out their legacy in the present. Nothing would honor Dr. King more than giving workers around the country the rights they are owed as citizens, as humans. As Memphis currently threatens to privatize their sanitation work and demand pay cuts from city employees, many of whom can least afford it, it is clear the Dr. King they remember is not Dr. King at all. What can best serve the man’s legacy then is to discard the modern Uncle Tom liberal Dr. King and redeem the original message of the man, the revolutionary.

Dr. King himself lamented that many a complacent citizen, “feels security in the status quo, and has an almost morbid fear of the new. For them, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.” As we reexamine Dr. King’s legacy and place his words against his now forgotten legacy, perhaps we can say that the greatest pain is the pain of and old idea, once lost but now renewed.

This renewal of the past is extraordinarily difficult. Marx is right to point out the pitfalls of such an endeavor and the potential for lapsing into tragedy and farce. But the justice of such an endeavor is worth the risk, and by keeping faith in its righteousness we become worthy of the goal we seek. This faith is what will sustain us in the dark hours of the struggle. As Dr. King said upon receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize: 
This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born. 
By abolishing the false image of Dr. King, whether it is President Obama or others, we drop our illusions and see that the Dr. King we revered has been dead for decades. In such a moment we must mourn the loss of the man and his legacy. The King is dead. And yet, in the next moment we realize the unbound potential of a renewed Dr. King. His redeemed message, unburdened from falsity, can live on. Long live the King! 

Dr. King’s murder was unjust and committed under the most dubious of circumstances. A civil court trial in 1999 concluded that rather than being murdered by James Earl Ray, a myth that persists to this day, Dr. King was murdered through some shadowy alliance between local Memphis police and federal agencies. The details of his murder will likely never be fully uncovered, but by renewing his legacy for the present and future, Dr. King will be avenged. This vengeance though, is not one of petty reprisal, but one of justice fulfilled. Dr. King, thou art avenged.

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  1. Matt, another highly intriguing and evocative essay. The Benjaminian optimism which tempers and suffuses this piece stands as an urgent call to reinvigorate contemporary discourse through these redemptive threads of history. As Benjamin also notes in his Theses, history itself, if left to the ruling classes, becomes a tool for domination. Your piece rightly suggests that his has already been happening with the case of King, through so many deliberate acts of narrative formation. I am interested in your included comment of Cornel West, that President Obama's use of the King Bible is an act of "taming."

    As I wrote in January, the King remembered is too often a King forgotten, by which I meant this false memory of King peddled by the Culture Industry, etc, is remembered in his stead. To pervert Marx' maxim, King supplants King. But you do very well to point out the specific circumstances of his murder, as those conditions that he gave his life to protest still strangle our nation. The sanitation strike pulled him away from the Poor People's Campaign, which was a '63 style march to protest capitalism. That he effectively gave his life to march with sanitation workers is such a powerful statement of his commitments. The ruling classes can abide a racial integrator, but they cannot tolerate one who so angrily rails against the injustice of their very existence. As King grew and began to see that overt racism was not the root problem, but the decay inherent to capitalism, he continued to radicalize. His memory must motivate us anew. It is now obvious that schools and society should be integrated (sort of, the state still suffers from de facto segregation), but the true critique lies deeper. And, without King, where are these sanitation workers, indeed where is the working class, today?

    I have always been inspired by King's rejection of white liberals, of pragmatists, who offer the "tranquilizing drugs of gradualism" and fail to look deeper into the rotting core of the American system.



    Very interesting connection with Louis XI. If, as Marx suggests, we must take our poetry from the future, it is necessary, in a Benjaminian framework, to let figures such as King speak to our present and to our future, both to re-connect their image to their historical specificities (to explode the stone) while disconnecting them from a fetishized historical image. Because, as much as King (and Robespierre) spoke to his present, he speaks as eloquently to ours. And to that we must listen.

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