Civil Liberties

MLK's Contested Yet Universal Blueprint for Freedom

The fight over King's legacy is testament to the rare power of his words

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Like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Orwell, Václav Havel, and the very best of our political/literary heroes, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., led a life and left a written record monumental enough to inspire people who couldn't agree less with one another.

For the president of the United States, King is a reason to embrace National Service. For the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the attorney general of Virginia, King is a reason to engage in civil disobedience against the president's signature law. He's a hero to military interventionists and anti-war activists; invoked in the cause of empowering Palestinians and fighting "for a secure Israel," and used by both sides of the current gun debate.

Even King's most famous line from his most famous speech—"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"—is deployed with equal fervor by both sides in the enduring battles over affirmative action.

For the dwindling ranks of King critics, such heavily contested interpretation may point to ideological incoherence and fundamental hypocrisy fanned by decades of canonization. But I would suggest an alternate view.

The texts we argue about most—the Bible, the Constitution, Orwell's wartime essays, MLK's civil rights sermons—are the ones whose force of enlightenment, poetry, passion, and morality have risen above the cacophany of human language to almost universally stir souls and inspire liberation. People don't fight over words that only apply to one side of most arguments.

It is no accident that King was at his most rhetorically persuasive when reaching back to the source code of Thomas Jefferson and The Declaration of Independence, portraying the Civil Rights movement as an act of cashing a check on the "promisory note" contained within the "magnificent words" that "all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Like the Declaration itself, MLK's words were considered radical upon utterance, yet universal within a couple of generations.

As a white Californian of weird politics and indifferent religion born a few months after King was assassinated, my inspirations from MLK are necessarily different than those of Baby Boomers, Millenials, or people of color, and are not solely applicable to issues involving race. For me, the source code that keeps on giving, that challenges our complacency while offering a four-step guide to overcoming it, is King's magnificent Letter From a Birmingham Jail, addressed in the literal sense to his skeptical fellow clergymen, but also to every American who has come along since.

"I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham," he explained to his more reticent contemporaries. "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."

You would have a hard time finding a more concisely written universal call to action. But that wasn't King's only arrow in his quiver against complacency. Switching to the specific, he paints a vivid, deeply personal, and all-too-believable picture of what paternalistic calls for patience sound like to the oppressed:

For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

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.

As pure depiction of the mental prisons erected by authoritarians and bullies, this passage ranks with Solzhenitsyn, or even Kafka. But like Havel's "The Power of the Powerless," King's letter can also be read as a practical guide for overcoming the hideous regime under indictment.

There are two essential steps in the letter's self-help guide: Using nonviolent civil disobedience to violate and thus advertise unjust laws, and (much less remarked on) preparing yourself for such protest. As he put it,

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.

In our rosy, conflict-centered view on history, we remember the direct action, forget the negotiation, and all too often ignore the collection of facts and related self purification. Like Havel (who King had an obvious influence on), MLK understood that a well-portrayed truth was a potent weapon against the empire of lies, both as a shaming exercise aimed at those on the sidelines, and as an irresistable lure for more brave-hearted activists. Speaking real truth to unjust power has proven to be one of history's most effective intoxicants.

"If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me," King closes his letter with, notably. "If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me." To paraphrase Orwell, even describing what's in front of your face requires—and deserves—a constant struggle.

In 2013, we have no shortage of morally suspect laws to oppose, starting with a drug war that has debased our constitutional rights and created a grotesque prison-industrial complex that warehouses millions of disporportionately minority prisoners. As King argued, radically and inspirationally, "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." Thanks to his example, and the elusive, cross-partisan appeal of his words, we have a blueprint for doing just that.