the divisive Martin Luther King, Jr.

| | Comments (4)
It is important to remember that, while universally praised and honored in America today, during his lifetime, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a deeply controversial and divisive figure.

Fringe views that still exist today (which I won't dignify with links) condemning King as a dangerous radical, a socialist, and a communist, were the views of much of the mainstream press during the 1960s.  King was viewed as such a disruptive force by the U.S. government that Attorney General Bobby Kennedy disgracefully authorized J. Edgar Hoover's FBI to wiretap King's phone.  Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Hoover's FBI worked to undermine and destabilize civil rights groups like King's SCLC, all in the name of national security and American unity.   

King attracted this kind of unwanted attention because of statements like this one, which is just as relevant today as it was 40 years ago:

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

One can be sure the charge of "ethnocentrism" was leveled at him, although perhaps not in that exact formulation.  One can be sure he was charged with sowing the seeds of division and hatred among Americans and upending peaceful relations between the races.  Those charges were as specious when leveled against King as they are now when leveled against migrants and migrant advocates. 

Largely forgotten in today's nationalistic political discourse is King's strong opposition to the Vietnam War.  As a proponent and practitioner of a philosophy of non-violence, he could hardly condone such a senseless expression of fear, violence, and rage, one that led to the deaths of millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians.  Here is one thing he said in response to the "desperate, rejected, and angry young men" he had met in the ghettos of the northern U.S. who questioned his ethic of non-violence: 

They ask if our nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.

(Via Jim Henley)

Today I look around and wonder how much has really changed since 1967.  Now, as then, we are embroiled in a senseless, bloody war that seems to have no end.  The U.S. government is the leading arms exporter in the world, accounting for over half of global arms sales.  It is currently the number one exporter of arms to developing nations.  The U.S. has both the largest prison population in the world and the highest rate of imprisonment by a large margin. 

Let's applaud King for his message of love and unity and for his great achievements, but let's also not forget how radical his message was, how uncomfortable and angry it made people at the time, and how little we have actually listened to his words.  So let's start listening, and let's start acting.

Update: Also see Roger Alford's take at Opinio Juris on how MLK impacted international human rights law.  

More here from Henry Richardson

King borrowed from and was influenced in his work and non-violent principles by the international work of DuBois, Mohandas Ghandi in India, Paul Robeson and Philip Randolph. Dr. King not only fused the discourses of civil and human rights, and in turn linked them to the international peace movement, but in so doing projected an African American alternative approach to international relations and international law, based on non-violence and a profound clear-sighted love of humans and humanity. In doing so he borrowed from Grotius and natural law doctrine and repudiated international relations doctrines based on balance of power, raison d'etat, and innate sovereign hostility. His impact has extended to the present anti-war movement against the Iraq invasion, in several ways, particularly in that movement's global coordination in his name on his birthday in 2003.

And in thinking of how best to act and respond to unjust immigration laws, we should remember King's advocacy of civil disobedience and the controversy it caused at the time.  After Thurgood Marshall walked out of the Episcopal Church's national convention in 1964 when the participants rejected a resolution supporting King's principle of non-violent civil disobedience, a newspaper editorialized as follows

Here is a Federal judge, the very embodiment of our law, acting as though he had turned in his judicial robes for a pair of sneakers and a CORE sweatshirt. The spectacle is ludicrous and not a little hypocritical.

This is a man who sits upon the United States Circuit Court of Appeals asking his church to encourage followers who violate selected laws "for reasons of conscience."

The terrible danger of such an official endorsement of civil disobedience is that it leaves to the individual to judge what laws to violate, and individuals have different ideas of "human dignity under God."

This endorsement would have been an invitation to anarchy!

The newspaper's judgment has not held up nearly as well as Marshall's has in the succeeding years.  Promoting the rule of law does not include honoring unjust laws.  Punto.

digg | | delish


kyledeb said:


Thank you for writing something on MLK day. I was rushing back tonight to try and get something out before midnight, and I was specifically going to comment on how MLK's views of just and unjust laws are particularly relevant to migrants today, but you've got that and so much more in this piece. That first quote is incredible.

I know we're supposed to reflect with optimism on his birth today, but I can't help but feel a twinge of sadness for the fact that he isn't among us anymore. Imagine what he could have accomplished if he were allowed to live to 79. He'd certainly have a lot to say about migrants now, and anyone that thinks differently is completely mistaken.

fash said:

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a deeply controversial and divisive figure.

This is a small, but very important, point, and I'm glad you made it.

I've noticed trend when I talk to supporters of the pro-migrant movement, and it's one of defeat. CIR was defeated, so we have to wait another x years, and meanwhile, nothing...The way the civil rights movement of the 60s is presented in schools and in the media is that it fell together in such an organized way, a neat pattern of progression. Looking back and seeing the victories and defeat as so obvious, we may look at our current situation and be unable to find a similar pattern, and so people get discouraged. I think that if we can remind ourselves that in the movements of the past there was no clear and certain outcome, that people were often fighting blindly for a goal they weren't sure they would reach, but that ultimately they overcame, then we can avoid defeatist sentiments now.

Anyway, I love the quotes. I have to echo Kyle, the first one is so relevant it's eerie.

janna said:

It's amazing, and yes, a little depressing, how relevant his words are today. Great post, yave.
Thanks for those words of encouragement, fash. We need to renew our historical perspective from time to time.

Changeseeker said:

This might be the best MLK post I've seen in the two years I've been in the blogosphere, yave. And your points are important and well made. In the sixties and seventies, the struggle was anything but tidy and the people so glibly lionized as heroes and heroines today were not only flying by the seat of their pants most of the time, but were caused to suffer mightily while they were doing it. King and the rest of his cohort were constantly plagued by castigations, humiliations, and lies; petty harassment, economic pressures of all kinds, and of course, physical violence, even to the point of death. I have an aversion to the "I Have A Dream" speech, in fact, for just this reason. I think it gets all the attention it does, though, because, as you outline so well here, it stops short of the MUCH stronger message he often gave.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on January 21, 2008 5:29 PM.

Voting Altruism: Shouting for the Silenced was the previous entry in this blog.

Breaking Free is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.