Hagiography, Civil Rights, and Martin Luther King Day

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a polarizing figure during his lifetime.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a polarizing figure during his lifetime.

This isn’t my regular posting day. I wanted to get something up, however, reflecting briefly on the day.

Today is the day when we mark the anniversary of the date of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. The day, an American federal holiday, is one that has two sides to it—one that involves hagiography and a twisting of history—the other addresses the ongoing struggle, one that King was a foot soldier in; that being human emancipation.

I’ve posted a number of things over the years reflecting on King’s life. I’m not interested in playing a new version of that song. You can find two of what I consider my better reflections penned on this day in previous years; this one from 2007 that dealt with King’s reappropriation for mixed audiences and an attempt to set the history straight. Last year I wrote about how the holiday came about and also the racism still inherent in American culture. Interestingly, last year, we were also celebrating the second inauguration of President Obama.

I mentioned hagiography—a word in its non-specialized usage, speaking to the uncritical or “reverential” rendering of a historical figure. We see this most often when someone of national or international prominence dies. Recently, this was very evident with Nelson Mandela.

It’s easy to center today on Martin Luther King Jr. and only remember his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the 1963 March on Washington. This allows whites especially to remember him as a positive figure interested merely in helping the United States overcome its “problems” of bigotry and segregation—as if the only issue in America is race—ignoring his much more powerful or even radical message regarding class. Doing so erases from view the hostility that greeted King’s initial efforts, and the many who viewed him as a polarizing figure. For me, I’m particularly interested about how many on the political left felt like King was pushing too quickly and asked him to “tone down” his rhetoric.

What I’m guessing will be the tack of most commentators today is to talk about civil rights in the most innocuous manner, possibly associating our current president as much as possible with that sanitized message from King; I’m thinking that’s what liberal media outlets like NPR will be doing. I won’t be listening, and in fact, I’ve been tuning out their message more and more, along with most of the mainstream’s filtering of news and truth. Maybe I’ll tune into Democracy Now instead.

Actually, as I’m tapping this out in my office, I’m listening to some great tunes courtesy of WMPG and a show called, “The Classics,” with DJ Babyjay , pumping out some old skool hip-hop and offering a much more accurate vision of what this day’s about for me, in my humble, musical opinion.

Today we celebrate MLK’s birthday; I’m taking some time to focus on the totality of his message, addressing militarism, materialism, and racism, and also understanding what his life means today for anyone interested in activism centered on results rather than rhetoric.