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Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Identity Politics of Celebration

Thomas Whitley

MLK JrIt seems to be becoming more and more difficult to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The vast majority of articles I have seen leading up to this day seem to have done one of two things. They either co-opt King's words, name, and brand in an attempt to drum up support or sales. Or they tell me why I do not actually understand what Dr. King was about. Articles of the latter kind are, likely, more necessary than I would like. Many people do seem to have forgotten (or perhaps simply never knew) many of the issues about which Dr. King cared so dearly. Even so, it seems a rather arrogant position to announce to the world that you are one of the few chosen ones who really understands Dr. King, particularly when your own pet interests turn out to be "what Dr. King really fought for." The disingenuousness is palpable.

We are at a time when just about everyone desires to claim the mantle of Dr. King, to assert that he/she is continuing his fight. This is not, I think, a completely bad thing. For it means, at the very least, that, generally speaking, we as a nation recognize what Dr. King meant to our country and the power of his legacy. Yet much of it still strikes me as distasteful and a bit of a charade.

I am not questioning any single person's commitment to carrying out Dr. King's dream, but I am wondering to myself whether simply putting up a quote from one of his speeches or letters actually does anything to see this dream realized. Is it done out of more than desire to have a certain box checked - the box in question being something like, "Thinks Civil Rights are a good thing"? And what about other causes which I think are important and for which I voice my support? Is what I'm doing actually helpful? Am I advancing the causes of freedom and equality? Or have I become too comfortable with my slacktivism?

[Aside: I reread Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" again today. It is one of the few modern texts that I reference in my Introduction to the New Testament class. This letter comes up when I talk about the process of canonization and how we got to the New Testament that we have today. I explain to my students that the canon has never been stable. The first list that we have record of that contains all 27 - and only these 27 - books that are currently in the New Testament is from 367. That's over three centuries after Paul wrote his letters. And the list-making did not stop there. I talk about other canon lists but my students perk up the most when I tell them of the suggestion that King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" be included in the New Testament. I always enjoy the surprise on their faces.]

My larger point is that I recognize how history-making and history-writing happens. I am quite familiar with famous people, ideas, and movements being used to advance various causes - some seemingly quite foreign to their ostensible inspiration. This is much of what I study in my own work as a historian of early Christianity. Doing history well is hard work - some would say impossible - even with a figure as recent and as well-written as Dr. King. Michel-Rolph Trouillot has shown us this quite well in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History and Constantin Fasolt reminds us that "history is in and of itself political" in The Limits of History. The days leading up to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the States this year and the spate of articles, commentary, and social media posts they produced only make this reality more clear to me when I see the co-opting, revisionism, selectivity, etc. at work in how he is talked about, celebrated, and used to condone one's own views and actions while condemning everyone else's.

We are all of us, it seems, engaging in politics. Do I understand Dr. King better than another because I have read the authors he frequently references like Socrates, Augustine, Tillich, Buber, and Eliot? Or does someone who has grown up on the opposite end of the privilege-scale from me better understand Dr. King because of shared experience? No answer to these questions is free from some sort of political agenda (and I don't mean political in the Republican-Democrat sense). And this is what is so hard about being an actor in a society and not merely an observer distanced by time and space. For now I must think about my own use of a famous historical figure like Dr. King.

Just how deeply involved in these identity politics am I already? And is there another way?