R.I.P MLK: A Plea Stop Taking MLK's Name in Vain

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There are few more difficult people to write about than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (gotta give the man all his titles). MLK has long since become more about the people invoking his name, than about the man himself.

If I were to recommend one short article to read on MLK, today, it would be this 2005 Harvard Crimson article written by Brandon Terry, a friend, and one of the wisest people I know. He writes about the intellectual strands of MLK that have been long forgotten, namely "elements of Third World radicalism, black nationalism, and Marxism." Brandon also gives one of the best recommendations I can hope to give, on this day, to those who are interested in learning about the real MLK. Read the book "A Testament of Hope," a collection of MLK's writings which has effectively become my MLK bible.

I should end this post here. I'm tempted to say that if you haven't read through "A Testament of Hope," you have no business writing or even thinking that you know what MLK is about.
The sad truth is, though, that even people familiar with his words have bastardized MLK almost to the point of nonexistence. Just to give two examples, you have Glenn Beck invoking his name with tears in his eyes while he systematically assaults just about everything MLK ever stood for. I wouldn't even call Glenn Beck non-violent because his words are among the most violent I've ever come across in mainstream media, and yes there is violence in words.

You also have President Barack Obama invoking MLK's name to justify war while he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, when one of MLK's most courageous moments was his stand against war as he made the connection between the violence done to people of color within the U.S. and outside of the U.S. It is not my intention to draw an equivalence between the President and Glenn Beck. I think President Obama has more right to invoke MLK's name than I ever will. I'm just providing two shades of the sort of twisting of MLK's legacy that has rendered the man's historical role almost unrecognizable. One need only look at the controversy around the MLK memorial in Washington, D.C. to know this is true.

I don't want to position myself as a defender or an authority on MLK's legacy. I guess this is just a plea to let the man rest in peace and a to stop taking MLK's name in vain. I'm not sure how many people will take that recommendation to heart, so I'll direct the rest of my words to the pro-migrant movement about how I envision carrying this out.

It's tempting to compare the civil rights movement to the pro-migrant struggle. If done correctly, in certain instances, it might even be strategic to do so. In order to make change, you have to meet people where they're at, and sometimes the best way to do so is through invoking a shared history that people can relate to. The civil rights movement is something people in the U.S., and the world over, can strongly relate to. There are two phrases, though, which I think cross the line from learning and drawing inspiration from into bland imitation and almost desecration of a complex movement.

One phrase I hear all the time is that the pro-migrant movement needs an MLK. Some have even gone so far as to declare modern day MLK's for the Latino community. Anyone who is looking any place other than Religion for a prophetic leader to sweep them off their feet and save the day isn't looking in the right place for leadership. Even in his time, MLK wasn't considered to be the leader everyone expected him to be. If you're waiting for an MLK, let me tell you that you have to be your own MLK. If that isn't enough, I know I've drawn inspiration from the equivalent of MLK's all around me, particularly DREAMers who embody the sort of courage and love in their words, actions, and very being, that we can all unite around.

Another phrase I hear far too often is that the pro-migrant movement is the new civil rights movement, and I've heard other movements use this line, too. Don't say this. If people aren't drawing that conclusion themselves, you've already lost, and if they are, you're just hurting yourself by explicitly saying that. What I find people generally mean when they say that is that people made change during the civil rights movement and we're making change, or want to make change now, which is almost meaningless to say, really.

It isn't just that, either. I draw a lot of inspiration from the civil rights movement and there are certainly tactics and ideas that I borrow from, all the time. To declare for our complex present-day movement the mantle of another complex movement of the past, which still continues to this day, is a simplification, at best, and profane at the very worst. The only people who have a right to do this are folks who participated and participate in both movements. I think you'll most people who fit this description are very careful with the comparisons they make.

These are just two examples of which there are many more. If you've gotten this far, and have read MLK's "A Testament of Hope" the next step I encourage you to take is to read about the civil rights movement through the perspective of power, by which I mean "the ability to do." Try and understand how people like MLK negotiated complex personalities and interests to move the world as they found it towards the world as they wanted it to be. Two excellent books that provide this sort of perspective include "The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement." Though I haven't read it yet I hear "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention" does the same. That's the best way to understand the complex tactics and strategies of a different time period and draw inspiration from them at the same time that you honor the differences.

I've gone on for much too long, and probably have already crossed boundaries that I shouldn't have. I hope those who have read this far don't regret failing to stop at my recommendation to read "A Testament of Hope" and that what I've written rings true.

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This page contains a single entry by kyledeb published on January 16, 2012 11:57 AM.

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