Monday, October 01, 2007

We All Remember Being Much Better Than We Actually Were

My proposed headline was above, but the editor, to my regret, went more prosaic and far, far less ironic. I’m not even exactly sure what he meant, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t what I thought I meant. But it’s more historical fun and games this week; I’m leaving the looming state budget battle for future columns for the public service of reminding people exactly how reactionary (and wrong) the Republic and Reg Manning were during the 1960’s. Meanwhile, anyone care to guess what Dr. King would have thought and said about the war in Iraq?

East Valley Tribune, Sept. 30, 2007

This week’s lesson in both history and remembering things more favorably comes from a new biography by Thomas F. Jackson called From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice. (Hat tip to Rick Pearlstein for his link to a superb review by Todd Moye.)

Jackson’s thesis is that Dr. King didn’t become more radicalized as he got older, which is a shorthand version of the transformation described in David Garrow’s 1986 biography, Bearing the Cross. Instead, Jackson reviews King’s writings and speeches from seminary and his earliest days in the civil rights movement, and contends that King’s message always had as great an economic message as a racial one.

We’ve all pretty much forgotten three things about King. First, how young he was. King initially received national attention during the Montgomery bus boycott, when he was 26. He won the Nobel Peace Prize at age 35, and was assassinated at 39. People my age remember John F. Kennedy as a younger man, but King somehow turned older and less confrontational in our memories -- but he died still young, and still angry.

Second, nobody remembers the actual name of the 1963 event where King delivered his "I have a dream" speech; it was the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." King spoke not just of racial equality, but also economic opportunity and fairness. We’ve forgotten that he fought not just for voting rights, but also for "rights" we don’t yet recognize, to a good job and a decent home.

Third, we’ve also forgotten just how controversial King and his tactics were. Jackson cites Gallup Poll numbers, and it wasn’t just Arizona Republic cartoonist Reg Manning who considered King a dangerous Communist sympathizer. In June, 1963, during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Birmingham campaign -- when Commissioner "Bull" Connor turned fire hoses and police dogs on unarmed marchers, a sight now credited with triggering passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- some 60 percent of Americans thought that these demonstrations "hurt the Negro’s cause" more than helping.

By May, 1964, that number rose to 74 percent, and two years later, during SCLC nonviolent campaigns in Selma and Chicago, it reached 85 percent. If Dr. King changed Americans’ hearts and minds, it didn’t happen during his lifetime. While history was actually happening, far more of us were against than with him.

King also became a fervent opponent of the Vietnam War. In his 1967 sermon at New York’s Riverside Baptist Church, he called the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," and denounced spending more in a month on war in Asia than in a year to fight poverty here. (If only we spent as much annually on fighting poverty as we do in a month in today’s wars.)

The 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike, rather than some tangent, was in Jackson’s view central to King’s actual vision: a battle in which workers would fight to organize for dignity and higher wages. (Nowadays, we’d just complain about higher taxes required to give workers dignity and higher wages. Better to outsource, then complain about undocumented workers taking American jobs.)

And Memphis, before his death, was supposed to be the first stop in a campaign that would take thousands of poor people to camp on the Mall in Washington until the federal government agreed to a guaranteed jobs-or-income program. But after King’s assassination, the Poor People’s Campaign fell apart, cities were torn apart by riots -- and the nation quickly started misremembering history.

Jackson notes that America increasingly spurned King while alive, but became rapturously eager to canonize him after his death. Led by people and institutions who didn’t support King at the time, we all now consider King a great inspiration, having forgotten anything discordant to our artificially-enhanced memories of our own wisdom and decency.

But if Dr. King’s actual life means anything, the lesson is that if you want people to respect you once you’re dead, you’d better make them uncomfortable while you’re alive.

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