I have long thought that Martin Luther King, Jr., was put to death by the powers that be when he began to make the connections (a nod to Beverly Wildung Harrison as I use that phrase) between American militarism, the exploitation of working-class Americans of all colors and creeds by unbridled capitalism, and racism. As long as he confined his activist organizing to civil rights for people of color, the powers that be let King be, while keeping a close watch on him through his odious nemesis J. Edgar Hoover.
It was when King chose to speak out against the war in Vietnam and organized a poor people's march on Washington that crossed racial boundaries and brought marginal, impoverished white and black people together that he crossed a line and became such a threat to the powers that be that he was executed. In case it's not clear, I have never believed for a moment that his assassination was the act of a lone loon.
My thinking about these matters has been shaped by reading Taylor Branch's magisterial biography of King, by reading the work of and partcipating in a panel discussion with Cornel West, by reading black gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin's powerful set of essays Time on Two Crosses, and by seeing at first hand the easy propensity for repressive violence that an entire society, the Southern white culture (the Southern white evangelical culture, since that's its most accurate name) in which I came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, was freely willing to demonstrate as people of color began to claim rights long withheld from them.
When raising two sons with no husband on an Arkansas teacher's small salary in the 1950s became too much for my mother, she had what the doctors called an episode of nervous prostration. She realized she needed help. She called our town's black school and asked for a teacher to be sent to us, to teach us while she lay in bed recovering her strength.
Arnella Claiborne: that was her name. The day she arrived with a stack of books from her classroom, I opened them. I was shocked. Inside its front cover, every book had a long list of names of pupils who had owned it before. I knew many of them. They were my classmates at the white school.
Inside, pages were torn from every book. There was not any page in any book that was not defaced, scribbled on, torn. It was the beginning of a new school year, and these were the books that were being given out to children in the black school to learn from. I thought of how I looked forward every school year to my new books, to cracking them open and smelling their new smell.
I had never thought about, never dreamed of, what it meant for black schools to receive the broken-down, torn-apart, thrown-away refuse of white schools. As a sheltered little white boy, son of a teacher, I had never even known about this until Arnella Claiborne arrived in our house that day with her stack of "new" books.
The vignette is a story told to me this week by a friend of a family member. He's writing a book about his memories of growing up in the Arkansas Delta region in the 1950s. It centers on his interaction with Arnella Claiborne.
When I think of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., I think, then, of someone who inspired collective grassroots protest against socioeconomic injustice. I think of someone rooted in a legacy of protest that is as American as apple pie, whose roots lie in the thinking of people like Thoreau, Emerson, Sojourner Truth, Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe: someone who believes that real, "ordinary" people can make a huge difference in the resolute journey of a society towards greater justice for all — when they make their real, "ordinary" voices heard as they stand side by side and insist that black lives matter, that everyone's life matters.
On this day remembering Dr. King, I'm thinking of something that Dave Zirin said as the year turned, about the power "ordinary" fans and athletes demonstrated in 2014, using "ordinary" tools of social media, to challenge the fat-cat powers that be who own the U.S. sporting industry:
As the year comes to a close, the masters of sports find themselves bruised, battered and in altogether dire straits. Twenty fourteen will be remembered as a turning point, when those in charge of the multibillion-dollar athletic-industrial complex—the commissioners, the network executives, the team owners—saw their control over the levers of power slip in a decisive fashion. They are now a collection of Fantasia Mickey Mouses: sorcerers who are unable to corral and contain their own spells.
This will be remembered as the year when a bomb that had been ticking for several years exploded. The accelerant has been the power of athlete- and fan-generated social media to launch news cycles, spread video and audio at light speed and mushroom controversies that otherwise would not have existed.
And I'm also thinking of Britni Danielle's recent observation that, without "ordinary" people using "ordinary" tools of social media when someone detonated a bomb at the NAACP headquarters in Colorado Springs on 6 January, most of us would not have heard of this event — since the mainstream media ignored it:
"Social media has allowed marginalized communities to not only have a voice but find out information that has been traditionally ignored," said [Dawud] Walid [executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations]. Walid, who contrasted the dearth of coverage of the Colorado incident with the nonstop coverage of the massacre in Paris.
And I'm remembering something Sister Teresa Forcades said in 2013 about how the important changes that take place in religious institutions like the Catholic church come from the bottom, not the top, from the margins and not the center:
Any change in history, both at the church and the societal level, has started from below. When John XXIII was chosen, for example, there were already renewal movements like Nouvelle Théologie in France and the Movimiento Litúrgico, which was very important here in Montserrat. Well, I see something similar happening now: constructive and faithful criticism is rising from the grassroots so that -- I don't know if it will be this pope -- but the time will come when it can't be ignored.
And that echoes an observation she made the same year that effective reform of the Catholic church does not depend on believing that a "Pope Messiah" is going to bring magical change to the church, but it depends on recognizing the we are going to bring that change:
[O]ur necks are also going to hurt from looking to the top, waiting to see if we get a Pope Messiah. John XXIII was the champion of the changes needed in the Church of those times, but I think John XXIII would not have been able to do that without the support of the base communities that had already been working half a century for change in the liturgy and in theology.
Happy MLK day to everyone celebrating it — and a good day to all readers.
The photo from the Poor People's March on Washington in 1968 is by James Pickerell and is in the collection of the Reuther Library at Wayne State University. I am assuming that the photo is available for sharing on blogs because the Reuther website has links to Facebook, Twitter, etc., for sharing its materials.