It is that time to pause and think about the incredible life and contributions of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., oftentimes referred to as MLK. He was named Michael King Jr. after his father — who later changed both their names to Martin Luther, in honor of the religious reformer.
Like many icons, it is easy and maybe convenient to in some fashion celebrate him while ignoring or even rejecting his values and what his life was about. We seem to insist on celebrating at only a safe distance from life. One could blame this on the passage of time, but we see the same approach to President Nelson Mandela.
Like all of us, only more so, the Rev. Dr. King was complicated and a work in progress. And why wouldn’t he be? We more often today refer to King as Dr. King and not the Rev. Dr. King. This is not just a simpler way of seeing him; it’s a way that helps us obscure who he was and what he stood for.
King’s public life started in earnest when he was 26, and by the time he was 39 he had been killed. Like many icons, despite his powerful impact on the country and the world, he had much more controversy in his life than in his death.
But this lack of controversy in his death is achieved by denying much of his life. While living, many considered King to be dangerous and a threat to the American way of life. The FBI hounded him, and despite his commitment to non-violence, he was considered to be, and in many ways was, a radical.
Many of these assumptions were not wrong. King was a threat to the American way of life, but in a way that embraced what I believe is the best aspiration of the American dream. He did not just call for the end of segregation and racial inequality. He called for true integration, not just desegregation, where people were not just together physically, but also spiritually. He not only supported affirmative action, but called also for reparation. He challenged capitalism, war and inequality. He called for an America that was inclusive not just as isolated individuals, but as profoundly interdependent people caring of each other.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King wrote:
“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
King’s position of caring interdependence rejects radical separation and fear of dependence, especially across racial and immigration lines; this position would be a radical turn for America. When the rightwing asserts that King was anti-America, they are not entirely wrong. He was against the America that they were for. He was for an inclusive, fair, and caring America – that is not the America of the far right.
King operated from non-violence but was not afraid of anger. He called for indignation, but not personal or petite indignation. Instead, he called for righteous indignation:
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies… A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, ‘This is not just.’ It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, ‘This is not just.’ The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”
Undoubtedly, this is not the King that many of us want to remember. Nor is it the dream of America that we all share. But by his own words, King was calling for a revolution, not with guns or violence but with spirituality and love.
Remember that we are celebrating the Reverend Dr. King Jr., not just Dr. King. Why is this important to remember? Maybe what made King most radical, and at the same time most effective, was in bringing together social justice and spirituality. He called for a movement where power and love were inextricably joined. In the “real” world, we worship power and think love and caring are for those who are naïve. In our religious or spiritual life, we may embrace love and caring but think of it as private and the opposite of power.
In the last week, two friends — Deepak Bhargava and Julie Nelson — have reminded me of King’s position on power and love. Deepak went so far as to suggest that maybe his position is one of the most important insights from King’s work for us today. King could not have been clearer.
“Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic,” he said. King went on to note that “This collision of immoral power and powerless morality constitute the major crisis of our time.” Love is where our interconnectivity expresses our caring. Power is the ability to realize our dreams.
It is not just important to dream, it is important to dream with and have the right dreams, and then to make it so. King dreamt with many. He stood on the shoulders of many before him, from those that dreamed of the Declaration of Independence to the slaves that dreamt of freedom and belonging to America.
But King’s sense of belonging was not passive. He also believed it was necessary to change America. He did not advise running into a burning house. In his life, he was called to a movement and he answered.
Many surrounded him, including great strategists. Two of his best were Wyatt T. Walker and Bayard Rustin. Rustin was not just a great strategist; he is often credited with grounding King’s work in non-violence and Ghandi. We would not be celebrating the changes King helped push America to without these and many others.
While Wyatt may have worked in obscurity, Rustin worked in a closet. As a gay African American in the 1950s and ’60s, he had an uneasy relationship with the civil-rights movement that he helped to create. King was uncomfortable with homosexuality and distanced himself from Rustin. It is only recently that President Obama recognized Rustin’s important role, by posthumously giving him the Presidential Medal of Honor, in 2013.
King’s dream continued to evolve. Like all of us but more so, he was growing and changing. King’s growth was always toward justice and inclusion. I have no doubt he would have moved to include gays in his dream, and he would celebrate the movement we are making on that issue.
But ultimately, we cannot know what his dream would be today. Neither King nor his dream was static. What we do know is that what strongly inspired his dream as it evolved was a sense that we are interconnected and that as we move toward a fairer world with justice structures, we must do so with power and love.
So why is this so radical? What this suggests is that even if we disagree, even if someone oppresses us, we remain connected. That no one is outside of the circle of human concern and that must be reflected in our structures, stories and ourselves. It calls for a strategy, a movement to give expression to fairness without an enemy.
Some of my students at Berkeley question if there can be a circle without someone outside; don’t we need an enemy? I believe King would say “no.” My colleague Gibor Basri reminds us that the universe is a sphere with nothing outside of it.
King refers to this space — where we are connected and no one is outside — as “the Beloved Community.” This is the aspiration. It is a political and spiritual project that defines not only our country but also each one of us. This is what informed King’s dream and hopefully informs ours. (King’s vision is reflected in both the name and vision of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.)
Happy birthday, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Happy celebration, America.