Does MLK Day honor Martin Luther King, Jr.?

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Yesterday, Michael Spencer posted five reasons he doesn't like Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. He writes as an admirer of King, not a detractor, reflecting on reactions to the annual observance from African-Americans and from white Evangelicals.

Spencer says that the observance has been treated as the exclusive possession of African-Americans, when it belongs to all Americans:

My African-American students almost universally resent that we do not dismiss school in deference to “their” holiday. (If any holiday should be celebrated by GOING to school, this one should.) When we’ve been asked to have MLK programs, students protest if the program is not all African-American, and for African-Americans. Virtually every image of MLK, Jr. day on the media is dominated by African-Americans.

It’s an American holiday. Dr. King said he wanted to see the day we stopped celebrating skin color and made up a community of love based on character. To make MLK, Jr. day an African-American holiday has the potential to increase the resentment many Americans- particularly in poor, rural areas like ours- already feel toward minorities.

If we can’t celebrate it as an American holiday, then let’s just don’t.

Neither, says Spencer, should it be a liberal holiday to celebrate liberal solutions:

Dr. King’s ideas on social justice hardly resemble the solutions of today’s race baiters and misery pimps. The dignity of suffering, the advocacy of truthful speech, the refusal to whine, the call for conscience and action: these things, not government spending on more and more government programs and employees, are what Dr. King advocated. A role for government? Sure. Government as the savior and solution to every injustice? No way.

He goes on to say that the day ought to celebrate and acknowledge King's legacy in the progress that has been made in the 43 years since his march on Washington, but too often is marked with speeches that suggest that King's work was all in vain; that teaching the history of the civil rights movement would be more valuable than another day off; and that white Evangelicals need to fix their attitude toward the man, warts and all:

We ought to be glad King’s vision was of the peace of Christ and treating people as the images of God. We should thank God he was willing to suffer, be bold and go to the cross. We should see him as an American martyr and thank God for his faith, Christ’s power in his life and his love for all persons, especially his enemies. We can learn a lot from him and we should embrace him.

Spencer suggests marking MLK Day by reading his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," so I did, for the first time. It is a reply from King to white ministers who wrote him to question his promotion of non-violent civil disobedience. In response to their criticism, he defends his decision to come to Birmingham, where he was regarded as an "outside agitator," and his decision to lead sit-ins and marches to challenge the laws of segregation. Here are a few excerpts that grabbed my attention, which I present in hopes that you'll read the whole thing.

King explains how pressure from "gadflies" is sometimes required to bring about negotiation:

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Then he responds to their counsel to have patience, to wait for southern whites to decide to obey the Constitution's guarantees of equal protection:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six- year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

Regarding the morality of disobeying unjust laws:

Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all." Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.... Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong....

King cites openness as an essential element of civil disobedience and sets out honorable examples of such disobedience in history:

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's anti religious laws.

King expresses his disappointment with "peace at any price" moderates:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

... and his disappointment with the white churches of the South:

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

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1 Comments

Bob said:

I think one of the detractors for active observance of the holiday is the MONTH in which the Federal Holiday is observed.

In much of the U.S., mid-January is typically so cold it will freeze the cojones off of a brass monkey.

Maybe it could moved to March.........I know I'd definitely ENJOY it more in the near Spring.

However, on the on hand there are those MID-WINTER SALES staged around the current MLK Holiday observance.


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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on January 15, 2007 11:37 PM.

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