Dethroning a King
By Tripp York, Visiting Assist. Prof. of Religious Studies , Elon University, NC.
"A dangerous Negro, now a national hero. How shall we work with that?", Vincent Harding
In a brief essay entitled Martin Luther King, Jr: Dangerous Prophet,. Vincent Harding (a colleague of King) reminds his readers that as easy as it is to forget that Jesus was an executed criminal who undermined the very politics that makes this fallen world turn, so too is it both easy and tempting to twist King into our own image, who is no longer a prophet, but an idol that serves rather than questions our interests.
In 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. was called the most dangerous Negro in the United States because he posed a threat to the very precious ideals that, unfortunately, continue to underwrite our socio-economic and political culture. This same man is now revered as a national saint. The question that must be asked is: Did we undergo the changes that King demanded-an alternative economy, the practice of nonviolence, and the ceasing of imperialism? Or, has his message somehow changed since his death so that it can accommodate that for which he gave his life in protest?
For instance, how is it possible that a man who once preached against the evils of capitalism be awarded heroic status in a capitalist culture? How is it possible that a person who decried the wickedness that is war be remembered as a patriotic saint in the world's strongest warring machine? How is it that a Christian pastor, who so intuitively understood how racism, classism, and militarism go hand in hand, be remembered as an icon in a culture perpetually divided by these oppressive horrors? Finally, how is it possible that organizations such as GM Motors, Tommy Hilfiger, Exxon, Coca-Cola, Disney, Wal-Mart and McDonalds, seven of the greatest purveyors of Western imperialism in existence, be major benefactors for a one hundred million dollar plus memorial in his name? This is, ironically, a memorial that will be placed in a city known throughout the world as having a serious homeless problem.
Would King not be appalled by the very idea of spending so much money on a monument in his name in D.C., while countless people in that same city go to bed cold and hungry? Is this memorial actually talking about the same Martin Luther King, Jr. who argued that the United States, if it is to achieve equality, requires a completely restructured economy (in his words a "modified socialism")? Will this memorial serve to remind us of who King is or, in its very utilization of such vast economic resources, will its very existence actually make it easier to forget who he really was?
Apparently the King so often touted today is not the same man as the King of 1963. For the King who was hated and eventually assassinated for his dangerous and subversive ideals (that is, standing with the poor) has now become a part of the very machine he protested. In a sense, it is pure brilliance on the part of the empire. The best way to deal with a dangerous radical like King is to domesticate him. Claim him. Say you love him. Give him a national 'holy' day, and in doing so, you can stand free from any claims he might have upon us. He no longer stands above the American people holding us accountable for our jingoist practices. He no longer stands apart from us demanding that we restructure our society so that there need not be any poor among us, rather we have become exactly that which he was attempting to avoid: richer, yet poorer.
King had no interest in liberating minorities so that they could simply participate in the evils that white people had perfected; rather, he wanted to overturn the entire edifice so that all people could practice justice, charity, and love toward one another. But now, warring presidents gleefully quote him, 'supporters' cash in on his name, and the largest capitalist corporations on the planet support the building of a monument that, it seems, only the wealthy could truly enjoy. For what will the starving poor person think about as he or she peers at the expensive image of Martin Luther King, Jr.? I imagine they will think that the 'King' is dead.