It seems you can't shake a dead cat anymore without someone using Martin Luther King to prove their point. Conservatives claim he was one of them - he once said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," which they interpret to mean that he wanted everyone to stop talking about race and racism. White liberals counter that he was one of their own because they think he fought for equal treatment of black and white people, starting the first major post-war identity movement. Liberal LGBT people cite him often, to show that there's already precedent for their movement and to try to short-cut through many of the arguments made against the LGBT movement.
He's almost being treated like Jesus - his words are being taken out of context to support people's points, as if they've decided that since he's a great man, he must have thought like them and if he said something, then it's automatically true (open to the interpretation of the speaker, of course). It's annoying both in that I doubt that's what King would have wanted, both as a scholar and as a Christian.
But that really shouldn't happen. Unlike Jesus, King's words were written in contemporary English, he wrote his words himself, and, while he used metaphors liberally, he used few (none that I've found so far) cryptic parables. If people really do want to live the path that King did, to understand who he was and what he believed, all they have to do is go to the library and pick up one of books.
So, since Bob Somberby has been pleading with his readers for weeks to read Stride Toward Freedom, King's account of the Montgomery bus boycott, I did. It was absolutely riveting, on top of being a deep philosophical and theological text that mixed both scholarship and on-the-ground praxis. I'm inspired to write about it here to encourage you all to read it if you haven't and to discuss it since I'm late to this party.
As I wrote Friday, I'm not around this week. So I left Bil with a series of five posts on Stride Toward Freedom, since it's really that good of a book. I'm going to get into some bigger themes in the other posts, but this one is just four things that stood out to me, particularly because of what they say about us, today, in this movement.
- Rosa Parks was a former secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP. I knew she had a background in activism and had studied at the Highlander Folk School, and that she was much more than what we usually learn in school (little old lady decided she was too tired one day to move to the back of the bus, and, poof, the Civil Rights Movement happened), but I didn't know that she was a bona fide member of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex.
King himself was a member of both the NAACP and the Council on Human Relations, about which he says he was "surprised to learn that so many people found my dual interest... inconsistent." Surprised because the NAACP focused on legislation and court battles while the Council focused on public education and cultural change. How could someone support two strategies that are different?
The lesson for LGBT people is obvious today, with one of the heroes of the boycott being both a body-on-the-line activist and a nonprofit staffer and another concerned with both cultural change and legal/policy change. It turns out that when two organizations have the same goals and are defined by the same values, differing tactics are really besides the point.
And I'm, of course, referring to the debates on the relative importance of HRC and GetEqual from a few months ago, two organizations with the same values and goals but different tactics. I don't see why there's much a debate about which is better when they're doing the same thing.
- The choice of a bus boycott was intentionally class conscious. When King arrived in Montgomery, he observed three problems with three classes of people, problems that he thought were holding the community back: A) "an appalling lack of unity among the leaders"; B) "indifference" among the educated middle class; and C) "the apparent passivity of the majority of the uneducated." I'd be the last to say that the LGBT movement is the same as the Civil Rights Movement (that's tomorrow's post: "Gay is not the new Black: Why replicating King's strategies won't work for the contemporary queer"), but doesn't that sound familiar?
In choosing a bus boycott, the action was centered on the lives and interests of the working class. And King was specifically worried that the "indifferent" middle class:
The mass meetings also cut across class lines. The vast majority present were working people; yet there was always an appreciable number of professionals in the audience. Physicians, teachers, and lawyers sat or stood beside the domestic workers and unskilled laborers. The PhD's and the no "D's" were bound together in a common venture. The so-called "big Negroes" who owned cars and had never ridden the buses came to know the maids and the laborers who rode the buses every day. Men and women who had been separated from each other by false standards of class were now singing and praying together in a common struggle for freedom and human dignity. [emph. mine]
Imagine that - an action developed from the priorities and needs of the working class. What a topsy-turvy world by 2010 standards. Yes, working class and impoverished people are still the majority of America, but are they listened to? Does anyone with power care what they think, much less sacrifice time and energy to benefit them?
- King was able to discuss Karl Marx without discombobulating. There's an interesting chapter in the middle where King discusses the philosophical background of the philosophy of nonviolence that he first put into practice in Montgomery. (That chapter alone is worth getting your hands on a copy of this book.) He discusses Hegel, Nietzsche, of course, Gandhi, and... Karl Marx.
Now, he disagrees with Marx on lots of points, the first and foremost of which is that Marx was an atheist (King does not say that Marx was atheist so his beliefs only apply to him; King said Marx was wrong, in an absolute sense, because Marx didn't take God and the principles of the Christian faith into account). But also agrees with Marx in that pure capitalism is an oppressive system, and he credits Communism generally with being a protest for the underprivileged and for challenging people to be concerned with social justice.
I'm reading John Maynard Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, and right in the preface he's citing Marx's scholarly work as scholarly work (and Keynes was no Communist). What happened between then and today? How can someone like King have read, discussed, and published in a non-academic context on Marx at the height of the Red Scare when a majority of people today can't hear "Marxist" without thinking "Kill! Smash! Destroy!" Perhaps King was an aberration along those lines for his time; perhaps we've moved so far to the right and our discourse has gotten so oversimplified that we can't imagine the caricature behind our last Existential War having anything worth discussing.
- The Montgomery bus boycott was much larger than the actions of King and Parks. No, it wouldn't have been the same had neither been born, but King stresses over and over again that the movement was much larger than himself and that the conditions had been building for a while and the energy behind it was larger than the organizers.
Rosa Parks wasn't the first person to be disrespected, punished, or arrested for not following segregation rules on the bus (King mentions two stories, one of an arrest, one of a pastor being kicked off the bus, and he wasn't trying to put together a comprehensive history), and Montgomery wasn't the first city to decide to boycott the bus system (King called up a pastor in Baton Rouge for help). It wasn't the first city to desegregate its buses either. King wasn't the only talented pastor in the city that cared about integration, and he wasn't the only activist committed to nonviolence.
There was an organization formed, with dozens of people on various committees and support from many churches. Hundreds of people worked and planned and organized and spoke out and drove and donated and got involved. And, of course, there were the estimated 50,000 people who sacrificed their comfort and time for over a year to avoid the buses. King himself didn't understand how it all came together, writing that there was a "suprarational" quality to the boycott that couldn't be explained without a "divine dimension." He also submitted his resignation as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association twice when he thought he wasn't effective.
I'm not pointing this out because it's any surprise, but because the way history often gets taught in schools is as a story of great men accomplishing large feats, separated from the community, the social forces, and the ideas that shaped their times. Could George Washington have crossed the Delaware if no one rowed the boat for him? Would anyone care about Michaelangelo today if no one paid him? Would Galileo be remembered at all if no one taught him at school, raised him and made the food he ate, had no one done the research that his work built on?
That combined with the poor education lots of students receive on this portion of history - Rosa Parks was the first person who was just too tired to go to the back of the bus (fun fact: she was already in the back of the bus when she was asked to give up her seat), then the Civil Rights Movement happened, and everything was solved - it's worth repeating that these actions required the participation of tens of thousands of people and didn't produce immediate results. Even the boycott in Montgomery led to increased segregation elsewhere as segregationists tried to compensate.
These events are not the product of a great person finally coming along, bashing heads together, and setting everything straight. History's more complicated than that.
Tomorrow I'll get into more specifics, discussing why just quoting King out of context and applying his words to the LGBTQ movement isn't the level of reason we need right now. Moreover, I'm concerned about how every now and then someone will just randomly lament that there's no "gay Martin Luther King" to unite us all and lead us to
freedom equality. Then the lessons that we, as queer people, can and should learn from him will take up the rest of the week.