What is a person? Is a person fundamentally a mind – a collection of ideas about themselves and the world? Is a person a body – a mere mechanical organism, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain in the way that seems best to them? Or is the person a social being – a thought and a memory in the minds of others?
I don’t pretend to have an answer to these questions, but I’ll note the obvious – that there is often a fundamental difference between our self-conceptions, our actions, and how we are perceived socially. This becomes even more of an issue when we realize how the way we are perceived socially can be influenced by memory – particularly collective memory. Or perhaps, more accurately, by forgetfulness. And the way that Martin Luther King has been collectively remembered and forgotten has made him into something very different than what he conceived himself to be (in his own words). The MLK of our collective memory is also very different from the MLK of the time – it would be hard for a person from the 1960s to conceive of MLK as a near-universally beloved figure. And making King into a universally beloved figure has required us, as a society, to focus on tiny aspects of his memory while ignoring others wholesale.
The two most egregious re-appropriations of Martin Luther King are the re-appropriation of him as conservative and the re-appropriation of him as essentially non-religious.Conservatives imagine King as a religious man in the way that they are religious men, and thus imagine that he would agree with their backward stances on, say, homosexuality. Anti-gay marriage advocates invoke King all the time. They also imagine that King supported equality in the way that they support equality, that is, that King supported superficial equality that maintained the current power structure. Glenn Beck even planned his “restoring honor” rally to coincide with Martin Luther King’s birthday. He has invoked Martin Luther King is an opponent of affirmative action, which is ridiculous. Conservative attempts to re-appropriate King may sound silly and superficial, but they are, in actuality, belived by a whole lot of Americans. Those who recognize that King was basically a communist, or had views on race different from theirs, react in ways that range from gruding acceptance (such as Ronald Regan’s begrudging signing of the bill that started Martin Luther King Day) to downright temper tantrums (a senator threw the bill proposing the holiday on the ground and stomped on it.)
The other, equally egregious re-appropriation of King is the imagining of him as non-religious. Christopher Hitchens most famously did this in God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (a hateful book that, its worth remembering, was nominated for a National Book Award), saying,
At no point did Dr. King—who was once photographed in a bookstore waiting calmly for a physician while the knife of a maniac was sticking straight out of his chest—even hint that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next, save the consequences of their own brute selfishness and stupidity. And he even phrased that appeal more courteously than, in my humble opinion, its targets deserved. In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian.
It’s hard to believe Hitchens that King was basically nonreligious, given quotes like this,
“Laws do not change attitudes, but at least they control behavior. We need laws to change the habits of men while we wait on religion and education to change their hearts.”
In fact, one gets the perspective that Hitchens didn’t even pick up a single essay by Martin Luther King. It would be hard to believe that a man so intelligent could stare at Martin Luther King’s language, which is infused with invocations of God, and say, “Well, this is basically secular.”
The bare facts, as I have said before, show Martin Luther King was a leftist radical. Some of his leftist ideas – that all races deserve political equality, that the Vietnam war was a bad idea, etc.- are remembered, because they are safely in the realm of history. Others are forgotten – how King was influenced by Jewish anarchist Martin Buber, his sympathy for Ghandi’s collectivization of property in India, that true equality required more than simple political rights – have been largely forgotten. King is ideologically in line with what is now considered the “far left” – those who think that aid to the poor must go beyond charity orgniztions, that stopping racism must go beyond a few civil rights laws, that being civil to one’s fellow man must go beyond cordial courtesy. King wanted us to create a world where “brotherhood was a reality“, he wanted to create, “the beloved community” – a world of real, loving equality. He wanted us to all love one another unselfishly, and he thought God was the crucial ingredient to this love.
Even if you think that sounds like stupid hippie bullshit, you should know that Martin Luther King – a man who has become a symbol for unity in our nation – believed, in his heart of hearts, that it could happen. And he believed it because he believed in God.