Majestic Scorn and Risk


Q. McCall writes about WNBA for Swish Appeal. He was last seen around these parts assessing Iverson/Tupac; this post was prompted by my FanHouse column on MLK and the NBA.

Just the other day, the high school I work at held their annual MLK assembly with English classes from each grade presenting speeches about what MLK meant to them. I stayed for a bit, but left at about the time that I assumed I would have to finish preparing for class. So I made copies, set up the classroom and waited.

And waited.

I returned to the auditorium about 20 minutes after the bell for class had sounded and found the assistant principal outside waiting for the students to exit (in perfectly orderly fashion of course). “Are we on an alternate schedule today?” I asked another teacher as the AP walked away to respond to a call, demonstrating my naivete as a part-time teacher at the school. “No,” the woman laughed facetiously. “They’re just running late – you know how these things go.”


So I returned to class and relayed the story to my co-teacher: the irony of cutting class time at a predominately black inner-city school that is soon to be subjected to state control for failing to make achievement-test based progress is troubling enough. But it’s as though in the process of celebrating the man, we have forgotten that he was not just a figurehead but a highly educated individual who actually committed himself to school and received a PhD before joining a movement that pre-dated him. It was one of many reasons for tension between King and Fred Shuttlesworth.

When our students finally did return to class another 20 minutes later, we asked how the assembly was. “It was good,” said one student, with that kind of indifferent dismissiveness that adolescents pull off so well. “Somebody spoke about knowing him.” The other students had similar responses until the last one: “It was a waste of time,” he said sitting down confidently. “It’s just the same old stuff every year. And we still ain’t learning nothing.” At some point, the watering down of King’s life and the way we pass off these annual events as “education” year after year has to become a source of concern rather than a comfortably accepted reality.

Earlier today, Bethlehem Shoals passed on the article he wrote about MLK Day for FanHouse, which led to an interesting discussion between the two of us about that very issue – the watering down of his legacy and our unthinking acceptance of it as a singular day of service. I would argue that it’s the best treatment of race I’ve seen from him, especially considering it’s an angle on MLK Day that some people – see the comments -- would rather dismiss. And Shoals is right – there is a massive contradiction between the NBA and King’s vision. But there’s more to it than that – our whole approach to MLK Day is somewhat ironic given that King essentially committed his life to challenging the contradictions in our society that perpetuated racism.

Early in his career, the contradictions he challenged were those between the constitutional ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and the reality of life for blacks in the U.S. Case in point:

I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation. I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

Later in his career – the point when his rhetoric was suddenly received as more dangerous and threatening to the U.S. way of life -- it was the blatant contradiction of redirecting our attention from the plight of the poor in the U.S. to sending poor young men to Vietnam to fight another impoverished society.


Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans. Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Regardless of what we make of King’s assertions – either before or after he turned to his Poor People’s Campaign – the fact remains that this is what King was about as much as anything else: resolving our moral contradictions.

Sociocultural learning theorist Yrjo Engestrom writes that the tension caused by these contradictions is what leads to learning – the process of working through the anxiety caused by blatant discrepancies in our ways of thinking and resolving them leads us to refine our understanding of our own circumstances. It’s uncomfortable, but, as Gert Biesta describes, in some ways learning is an act of violence – destroying one’s pre-conceived notions and building a new way of thinking….over and over again.

Of course, that’s impossible when we have whittled King’s entire life down to one or two soundbytes, commodified them, and annually celebrated a watered down memory for so long that it’s hard to even discern what his life was about. A day of service or quietly engaging in service throughout the year without taking a public stand is in direct opposition to what King stood for. It’s comfortable – as comfortable as watching the game on the day off granted to us in memory of King – and we should not confuse that with honoring King’s life.

The title of Garrow’s book about King is Bearing the Cross, a biblical reference and described participation in the struggle in his writings (p 148): “I know this whole experience is very difficult for you to adjust to,” King wrote, “but as I said to you yesterday, this is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people.” The struggle is difficult, but “I am asking God hourly to give me the power of endurance.”

If we set aside whatever qualms we have about organized religion, the point here is that King was more than speeches and sloganeering – it requires people to stand up and publicly assume a heavy and burdensome responsibility for enacting change. The civil rights movement was indeed a struggle that forced many people to make sacrifices that we have not just forgotten but ignored. So while people often wonder where our great leaders have gone, perhaps a better question to ask is where are the people willing to stand up and assume responsibility for moving us forward? It’s not at all that they don’t exist – I work with and know many of those people. It’s that far too often, we look for others to “bear the cross” while we continue to live our lives of comfort.


Today we still sit with blatant contradictions that we refuse to discomfort ourselves to resolve, partially because of our refusal to deal with the discomfort of race talk, as described by Latoya Peterson:

Sadly, the progress hoped for by many in minority communities has not materialized. Instead, our conversations about race and its impact on American life are no more insightful or sophisticated than before, as evidenced by the discomfort we have in discussing racial issues in anything other than a superficial form. The newly appointed Attorney General Eric Holder attempted to have an honest conversation about race and racism with his colleagues at the Justice Department last February.

People get excited about the prospect of a post-racial, color-blind society when black professors are harassed by police and senators making poorly worded observations are somehow linked to segregationists. The racialized disparities in public schools are boiled down to a matter of non-white students needing to work harder and raising test scores as class sizes stay at 25+. Globally, there is a brief outpouring of support for Haiti after a major earthquake in which the damage caused was only exacerbated by our blatant neglect of their problems across administrations. Should athletes be solely responsible for challenging all of these contradictions? Of course not. And neither should the NBA. However, it’s also problematic to pretend that we’re honoring King with a bunch of watered down tropes and silly memes. As Chris Hedges describes, it’s representative of a world, “informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection.”

None of this is to say King’s own life wasn’t full of contradictions – people often credit him for the entire movement when he only reluctantly joined the movement because organizers needed to use his church for a meeting. His treatment of women in the movement as second-class citizens is well documented by historians David Garrow and Barbara Ransby. He was against the formation of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Commission that Ella Baker pushed for fearing a loss of control for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Contradictions are part of being human – we cannot expect to anyone to be free from them, even those that we mythologize and turn into figureheads of an entire movement.

Nevertheless, Shoals is right – there is no reason to boycott the NBA or reactively accuse them of abdicating an imagined responsibility to fight for social justice. His point – at least as I read it – is that we’ve lost sight of what MLK was really about. One way to correct that would be to take this day as an opportunity to better understand his legacy – committing ourselves to revisiting his speeches, discussing their significance, and having honest discussions about where we are now with regard to the very contradictions he addressed. But it’s gotten to the point where the contradictions between what we’re saying about him and our actions are becoming clear.

And even a 15-year-old -- who has probably known nothing other than a watered down version of the King narrative – can see that.


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At 1/18/2010 10:36 PM, Blogger Asher said...

The notion that we have some obligation to honor King's life, an obligation we might fulfill by enacting some of the policies in which he was in favor, or at least dealing with some of the issues he cared about, is a lot like saying that we should have a confiscatory income tax because Jesus once said that a rich man would have an easier time getting a horse through the eye of a needle than going to heaven. King was a great man because he played a large role in putting an end to segregation and de jure racial discrimination. He also supported a lot of other things that the nation at large isn't nearly as keen on. What these things were are of interest to historians, but they need not be of any interest to us, unless for some bizarre reason one chooses to believe that MLK was right about most everything. If people want to use King to argue that we should have, for instance, massive welfare payouts - a key plank of the Poor People's Campaign - that's okay with me as a marketing strategy for bringing back oldstyle welfare. But I don't take it anymore seriously than I take Ward Connerly saying that MLK would have opposed affirmative action seriously. It's just a ploy, invoking a dead man's memory to support your politics when you can find something in his speeches that happens to agree with you. And it shouldn't go beyond that. I'm perfectly content with the very selective, sanitized way MLK's remembered these days, because (a) there's absolutely no real reason to remember and honor everything MLK said, did and wanted, or put otherwise, MLK's sole use today is as a rhetorical symbol for things one likes, not as some sort of oracle we ought to consult to decide what domestic policies we ought to adopt, and (b) today's selective memory of MLK is no less selective than the one you'd propose, where we'd remember his pacifist and anti-poverty stances but choose to forget his gender politics, or his ambiguous views on affirmative action, or his support of a guaranteed income. Ultimately everyone's going to remember the MLK they want to remember, and that's perfectly alright.

At 1/19/2010 12:42 AM, Blogger Benjamin said...

This reduction of Dr. King, the work he performed, its effects and the work still to come to a series if if-then or either/or statements is both disingenuous and short-sighted. Tray's comments seem to say, if taken to what could be construed as their logical conclusion, that memorializing Dr. King and the work done on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement is nothing more than a sort of thought experiment, a ritualized celebration of a formerly sentient being who mattered once but couldn't possibly be expected to matter now. This kind of reductive reasoning further seems to argue for an existence lived in a bubble of relativism, somehow divorced from the reality of what men and women like Dr. King have accomplished.

I'm not seeking idolatry or the hagiographic quasi-porn that can (and often does) attend on these sorts of things. What I'm after is something other than the ritual deconstruction of men and women who have made their mark on history. To dismiss Dr. King as a mere "rhetorical symbol for things one likes" is, at least rhetorically, akin to supposing that recognizing and discussing the social and ideological underpinnings of the Holocaust is merely a thought experiment, an exercise of synapse firing speeds and debate class techniques.

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