As a national holiday, the commemoration of Martin Luther King jr. has been fraught with problems. Aside from the resistance to its creation, the act of collective remembrance itself is a deeply political affair. The building of monuments, the preservation of moments, and the mythologizing of symbols, people, and places are much more than a simple, dry cataloguing of dead facts. They are acts of creation that can be deeply contentious, as other recent conflicts surrounding Confederate symbols and statues have (again) reminded us. These fragments of pasts are commonly portrayed as something like a woven quilt, with patchwork pieces that we stitch, replace, and re-stitch together to tell shared stories that inform our understanding of the present and convey values and lessons for the future. We can also think of them as weapons, to be used and deployed in struggles over those same understandings, values, and lessons. As weapons, these commemorations can be dangerous, depending on how they are wielded and to what ends.
What dangers are promised by the remembrance of MLK? What dangers should be promised? There are three particularly important dangers that we should keep in mind as King is invoked in our present circumstances.
The first danger is posed by those who seek to co-opt MLK as a truncheon in defense of the status quo. It is the official representation of MLK in state speeches, the version adopted into the national histories, and the one safely relegated to the past and the Bad Old Days. This MLK Has a Dream of a future, one which is made politically palatable today only by virtue of the implicit notion that his imagined future is already our past. Or, as the Washington Post argues in its recent Whiggish, nationalist version of King’s thought and work (accompanying an equally superficial and selective portrayal of American conservatism as an ideological disposition and movement), he had always been a creature of the nation’s alleged true principles which had simply been forgotten or ignored, conveniently, for two centuries. That he was actually treated as an enemy of the state is certainly not taken as a lesson in and of itself for practical struggles today.
In this safe portrayal, King is no longer a danger to existing racism, militarism, or massive class divisions and structural violence, because the beatification of King into a bumper sticker saint is premised on the notion that these problems have already been mostly vanquished. Having played his part and fallen conveniently off the stage at the end of the final act, this MLK is used primarily to silence present social criticisms and dissent under a flurry of milquetoast platitudes and moralizing condemnations, usually about proper ways to protest, but also in defense of a colorblind silence about race itself.
The second danger is instead posed by those who look to King’s life and ideas as a living, incomplete resource from which to draw lessons in order to disrupt and destabilize the racism, police brutality, militarism, and economic violence that remain pervasive. This is a dangerousness that should be embraced. This kind of commemoration is of the evolution of a man from a cautious, relatively safe, middle-class liberal reformer to an unapologetic radical. It is of the critic who found it more and more difficult to ignore the interconnected nature of the various manifestations of violence and oppressions found throughout the world, from Jim Crow to Vietnam, Apartheid to Harlem, capitalism to empire.
This is the King who warned of the greater dangers posed by the white moderate than the KKK in the fight against racism; who challenged the myth that time moved along an inherently progressive path of its own accord, without struggle; who defended the necessity of conflict and creative social disruption as a means to force those in power to the bargaining table and to achieve equality and freedom; who blamed institutional violence and man-made economic deprivation for social unrest; who refused to apologize for the U.S. government’s mass killing of millions of people in Southeast Asia, even though it lost him credibility and influence within the Democratic Party establishment; who was harassed, threatened, and undermined by the FBI.
The third danger is not one of remembrance as much as forgetting, namely forgetting King’s limitations. King is often invoked as a kind of secular authority within the American political discourse. In doing so, we are encouraged to forget many things. We forget that King was one political actor among many, and that he was not The Leader of the Civil Rights Movement, even though he was (like Gandhi) adept at acquiring the credit (and blame) from many other people’s labor. We forget that his strategic vision and arguments – especially regarding “nonviolence” – were often viscerally contested and rejected by others involved in those same struggles. We also forget that he was imagined to be the comparatively “safe” option for white liberal reformers, especially when judged against the threats posed by the emergent Black Power and Black nationalist movements inspired more by the likes of Malcolm X or Fred Hampton. It is important not to forget that the reason we have an MLK commemorative holiday at all is because of King’s limitations, as well as his achievements.
Martin Luther King jr. is indeed a dangerous figure today. The more important question, however, is for whom.