Among the most painful bits of Dr. King’s legacy is how so much of it’s reduced to “I Have a Dream.” It’s true that it’s a landmark speech, powerful and moving…
…and always heard out of context of the other, more direct speeches that graced the March on Washington (a March organized by an openly Gay Man, no less – go look up the badass Bayard Rustin, please and thank you!). As if the marchers just wanted to spend all day on their feet, listening to platitudes and winsome ideas!
I’m not going to dive into that context, I assume your Google button ain’t broke. :) What I will do, is talk about a couple of other works by Dr. King, works that ground him in the realities he fought to overcome, and that echo into these times.
The text for the afternoon will be taken from two works from near Dr. King’s passing:
- “The Drum Major Instinct,” (hereafter DRUM), which you can listen to here, and read here, and
- “A New Sense of Direction,” (hereafter SENSE), which you can read here.
I post all this to encourage you to read/listen to the above in full. To underline that Dr. King was far richer a thinker and even rabble-rouser than gets noticed — that the Hoover FBI feared him for damned good reasons. If you chose to read the above docs, and skip the rest of this? HELL YA!
But for those who want more? Follow…
See, Dr. King did not buy into a color-blind society. That wasn’t the context he gave his “Dream” speech under. The context, the fuller context of his work and life’s mission, is made plain by this remarkable passage in DRUM:
[…]when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, “Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You’re just as poor as Negroes.”
And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white.
And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march.”
Now that’s a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, (Make it plain) he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out.
And there’s so much more.
One of the positive parts of Dr. King’s approach was in seeing a bigger picture, was in tying together all manner of injustice into a massive framework, what we today would call an attempt at intersectionality. It’s far from perfect; we know he was far too casual about martial relations to see the fullness of sexism. And although he was surprisingly cool with Rustin, he also failed to be vocal at all about what we’d today call LBGTQIA+ issues.
Yet there was a seed of power in his approach to directing white people to look inside themselves, in his challenge to their (and society’s) assumption of inherent goodness. And as critical as he was towards poor whites, that sympathy evaporates completely when you consider his words towards what we, today, might see as Privileged White people. From SENSE:
[…]policy-makers of the white society have caused the darkness. It was they who created the frustrating slums. They perpetuate unemployment and poverty and oppression. Perhaps it is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes, but these are essentially derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society.
King is far more aggressive – even angry — about calling out white society than he’s usually portrayed as. Reading his dissections of that systemic failure, and ideas on overcoming it, are bracing to this day…sadly.
See, King’s quick to lay the political blame on what I contend are still surpassing the Black and Brown voice in politics:
Negroes became outraged by blatant inequality. Their ultimate goal was total, unqualified freedom. The majority of the white progressives were outraged by the brutality displayed. Their goal was improvement or limited progression.
Obtaining the right to use public facilities, register and vote, token educational advancement, brought to the Negro a sense of achievement; he felt the momentum. But it brought to the whites a sense of completion. When Negroes assertively moved on to ascend the second rung of the ladder, a firm resistance from the white community became manifest.[….] Everyone underestimated the amount of rage Negroes were suppressing and the amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising.
(Not everyone. Ask Malcolm X, or Rev. Shuttlesworth, and you’d get a different answer on this, to name two people right off.)
But Dr. King is hella on the right track. And he knows it. And we’re still talking about the impact white progressives have on the Black and Brown vote, to this very day.
And because he’s on the right track, I can say this: Dr. King is clear that some changes can’t be made by speaking too kindly. That some painful truths have to come to the fore.
That’s what Black Lives Matter did. That’s what the 1619 Project did. That’s (part of) why Critical Race Theory – an academic theory mostly for lawyers – had to be scapegoated.
Dr. King saw that the closer we get to reality, the harsher the blow back. The more we talk about the systemic issues in this country, the more the arc of justice pushes the many folx who’ve suffered under those issues into the light and air we all deserve…and the more the old guard will press and preen and pervert and backstab to maintain power.
And SENSE touches on what kind of people have, and can, overcome those barriers:
[…]there are millions who have risen morally above prevailing prejudices. They are willing to share power and to accept structural alterations of society, even at the cost of traditional privilege.[…]Their support serves not only to enhance our power, but their break from the attitudes of the larger society splits and weakens our opposition.
It’s…not an easy calling, that Higher Calling, y’all. If you say it is, if you think I overstate things, then I ask you to show your work.
To conclude: I submit there are some things we can all learn from studying even a bit of Dr. King. And I hope the above serves as a starter, to that on your part, today.