I wrote the following essay in the late 1980’s. Reading it tonight, I was really struck by how foreign and almost dangerous it sounds to speak of anyone being critical of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was even uncomfortable with calling him by just his last name. Rather than edit the soul out of the piece, I decided to leave it almost as it was originally, because the words tell one story, but that sense of unreality tells another. Martin Luther King was a great man, and it is very well and entirely right that we should hold him in such great esteem.
But he was a man, not a titan or a deity. It is not well or right that we should allow the media, Hollywood, charlatans, and most certainly not professors to take us to a place where any mortal man cannot be called by his last name, or spoken of in frank and conventional terms.
As for the content and meaning of the piece, I will stand by it. (WAR)
AN AMERICAN IRONY
I. A MAN
A few weeks ago, [1980's, remember!] some people I know were talking about crime in America. They are sensitive people, concerned with right and wrong, and what they said had an impact on me. One of them said it seemed that every year, around the time of Martin Luther King’s birthday, there was a spasm of demonstrations and parades, and even violence with racial themes. Dr. King, she said, was becoming a rallying point for militant and violent Blacks. King had started the whole Civil Rights movement among American Blacks, and they were carrying on his tradition. Why, the speaker wondered, had America been bullied into dedicating a holiday to a rioter?
That got me to thinking. What had King really stood for? I was in high school when he went to jail in Birmingham, and though I’d heard his name at the time, I was about as politically aware as an eggplant. To me, the most important civil rights issue was whether my parents would let me go to the basketball game. There were three Black students at Sandia High, and they didn’t seem to have any problems the rest of us didn’t have. King and his work baffled me, but were so far from my existence as I understood it then that there was no motivation to learn about him.
I have changed my mental habits considerably since then, and the conversation among my friends aroused my curiosity. I went to my bookshelf and took down a history book that had several of King’s speeches and letters in it.
“If this philosophy [of nonviolence] had not emerged, by now many streets of the
South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced
that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble-rousers” and “outside agitators,”
those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our
nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek
solace and security in Black nationalist ideologies – a development that would
inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare…”
Two things struck me about this passage. First, King spoke very plainly against violence, and warned against actions that would lead to it. Second, he wrote that letter while cooped up in the jail in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. A lesser man might have been concerned with being invisible while in that place, but King never backed up an inch.
“In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful
misdeeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from a cup
of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane
of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into
physical violence…many of our White brothers, as evidenced here today, have come
to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and their freedom is inextricably
bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
That is from King’s famous “I have a dream” speech. I remember hearing people say that King was an Oreo – an appeaser – a collaborator - that he was “safe” for White folks to approve of because he preached submission. Get a load of a few more paragraphs from that speech.
“The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until
the bright day of justice emerges.
“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable
horrors of police brutality.
“We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a
Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down
like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”
This so-called appeasing speech was delivered to a crowd of over 200,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.. I’d never read the whole speech, and it moved me. King spoke of liberty and justice with a fine, consuming fire, but he also recognized the terrible trap of violence. He realized that if a race ware began, it could only end with the permanent subjugation of the losers, and even the winners would be losers. King spoke of brotherhood. He spoke of the day when little children could walk together without regard to their race. He spoke of self-defense and independence. He dreamed of a day when American Blacks could live as equal partners in America.
King deplored violent assault, and he understood that the roots of it lay in the frustrated dream of liberty and equality before the law that simmers and boils in the souls of all Mankind – including the souls of American Blacks in the early 1960’s. He deplored the idea that one group of people should have power over another simply because of their skin color. He did not seek supremacy over anyone, but equality in the eyes of the law for everyone.
I wish I’d known him.
II. A FLAG
When I came out of my study after reading about Martin Luther King, I saw a newspaper on the table. The paper was open to an article about a lawsuit being brought by the NAACP to prohibit the public display of a certain flag anywhere in the United States. The flag is generally called the Confederate flag.
Those White people I’d overheard had been reacting to Dr. King as a symbol. Their fear was infectious to me, but by doing some research I learned that he is frightening only to those who are ignorant of his true message.
The NAACP was reacting to a symbol, too: a flag. It happens that I know a lot more about that flag that I knew about Martin Luther King, but I believe many people would be more at ease with it, as I am with King’s ideas, if they knew what it really stood for.
In the winter of 1860 and spring of 1861, eleven states left the Union that had been established by the Constitution of 1787. They said the contract had been broken by the northern states – that the taxes, import tariffs, and constant interference by the Federal government in their lives had given them cause to leave the Union and form their own nation. They quoted the Declaration of Independence, “…governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and they withdrew their consent from the government of the United States.
Abraham Lincoln said they had no right to leave the Union and called up an army to force them to stay. Southern men, enraged at Lincoln’s naked threat of armed force, formed their own army. The first major encounter of the two armies was along a creek called Bull Run, in northern Virginia.
When the battle seemed lost to the Southerners, General Beauregard, the Southern commander, saw a large body of troops coming down a road on his flank. In the dust and smoke of the battle, he could not see what color uniforms they wore. Their flag hung limp in the still air. Seconds before Beauregard ordered his artillery to fire on the column, a breeze puffed their flag from the staff. They were Southerners, and within minutes, their fire helped drive the Federal army from the field.
After the battle, Beauregard told his staff about the incident. He said the Confederate soldier should have a symbol that would identify him in battle – a flag so distinctive that no one would ever mistake it for any other. This flag would not be the symbol of the Confederate government, of the Southern people, or of their institutions. It would stand for the Southern solider, alone.
The flag that Beauregard’s staff designed was a square of red, edged in white, with a blue cross of St. Andrew, also edged in white. In the cross were 13 white stars. The flag was known during the war as the Beauregard flag, or the Virginia battle flag. It was never the flag of the Confederate nation. Beauregard was replaced as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia by the most famous Confederate of all, Robert E. Lee. Lee, the flag, and the Southern nation became irrevocably joined in the minds of Americans.
The Beauregard flag was the symbol of several hundred thousand American fighting men. Under it, they wrote an incredible record of courage, stamina, and devotion to their ideals. That record is an American record, and it is partly blood shed by Southern patriots that the red stripes on the US flag symbolize.
In the end, they were defeated by overwhelming power and productivity. Their way of life was destroyed - all of it, good and bad - and all hope of independence crushed from them. More than a century has passed, but the Southern soul has not forgotten the searing shame of defeat – of Sherman’s march, Sheridan’s devastation of the Shenandoah Valley, Hunters pointless and brutal campaign into South Carolina, and finally, 12 years of punitive reconstruction.
The only shred of dignity Southerners could cling to was the service record of their fighting men. General Lee, as the symbol of their army, became almost an obsession with Southerners, but Lee died shortly after the war. The Virginia battle flag took his place as a visible reminder that though defeated, they were men.
III. AN IRONY
Both Dr. King and the Beauregard flag have been taken up by thugs and used as something they never were; King as a symbol of Black supremacy and the subjugation of American Whites, and the Beauregard flag as a symbol of White supremacy and the subjugation of American Blacks.
Those White people who were grumbling about King were frightened by the militancy of Black radicals, and were reacting to Dr. King with distrust and hatred. Many Blacks see a variation of the Beauregard flag being waved by Klansmen, and they, too, feel fear and hatred.
I think Dr. King would be enraged at the perversion of his message and legacy by those who wish to wreak harm and subjugation on others. I also believe that the vast majority of Confederate soldiers would take violent exception to the use of their battle flag as a symbol of oppression, especially by a band of renegades who hide in hoods and practice terror on defenseless people.
Dr. King is no more the cause of racial violence than is the Beauregard flag. Outlawing the flag, outlawing observance of King’s birthday, and outlawing white sheets would all have about the same effect. The problem is not the symbols, but the ideas, and ideas cannot be legislated against or fought with bayonets. Ideas can only be fought with other ideas, and the source of ideas is free and educated minds.
During our February observance of Black History Month, we should all – Black and White – read for ourselves the words of Dr. King. We should not depend on others to interpret his work for us. It is too important.
While we are reading, we should look into the war that is often represented as a crusade for or against Black slavery, and I don’t mean the fanciful versions of history that have been published in both the north and the south. Just as Dr. King’s message has been perverted, so has the meaning of the War Between the States. Go to the original documents and understand what the Beauregard flag really stands for.
If we are to deserve being called the moral or cultural heirs of either Dr. King or of the Confederate soldier, we must have the intellectual courage to study them both first-hand. I think we will find that they, and we, are more alike than different.