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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Column: Stonewalling justice

The dedication of the new Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. national memorial sculpture in Washington D.C. last week drew both reverent praise and ire. Martin Luther King III claims the statue is within his top three of 50 statues he’s seen of his father. If you’re like me and you’re wondering just how one ranks statues of his or her father, he claims it actually looks like his dad. But others are less impressed.

One criticism frequently heard could be captured by the take of Ed Dwight, a Denver-based sculptor who made renderings of Dr. King himself. Invoking the posture of the D.C. sculpture, which arranges the Reverend standing, almost emerging from the granite with a determined (or is it stern?) look and arms folded across his chest, Dwight sees arrogance and confrontation. And so it goes with other critics, the vast majority of who take offense at the sculpting of Dr. King as an aggressive figure, one that resembles the tenor of Malcolm X more than his own peaceful form. Could it be that the critics themselves are recalling a false past?

Dr. King’s iconic stewardship at the head of the Civil Rights Movement forms the American archetype of a social justice leader. This remains the case despite more recent protests. We don’t accord the same status to Vietnam War protestors as we do to Martin Luther King Jr. No other social justice leader, be they from the Civil Rights Era or any other movement before or since is honored each year with a federal holiday. What distinguishes the perch of MLK is the retelling of his story. This alternate history reconstructs the civil rights leader as peaceful through juxtapositions.

First, both during and after the Civil Rights Era Dr. King was presented distinct from Malcolm X. Given that the latter was the radical, Dr. King became the moderate. If Malcolm X was separatist, Dr. King was integrationist. If Malcolm X advocated violence, Dr. King advocated peace. While this became the truth of our grade school textbooks, reality bore a more complex dichotomy.

Toward the end of his life, Malcolm X had grown increasingly moderate. This shift began when he went to Mecca on religious pilgrimage. Upon seeing people of all colors and social positions praying together, his notion of militant separatism began to fade.

In contrast, the final years of Dr. King were characterized by increasing radicalism. Toward the end, he drew focus to the “…giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism…” in a 1967 speech. On April 4, 1978, the day he was assassinated, Rev. King was drafting a sermon titled “Why America May Go to Hell.” Should he have lived longer, there is little doubt he would have played a prominent role in the Vietnam War protest.

That’s why it’s crucial that the second movement to which MLK is juxtaposed to is the anti-war movement. I think the distinction drawn between Dr. King and the anti-war protests is the genesis for the artificially peaceful MLK. Both the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War protests were almost exclusively non-violent. However, no one in their right mind would identify the anti-war protesters as peaceful. By a function of draft-dodging, flag-burning and heated run-ins with authority, this was a both a confrontational and non-violent movement.

Because anti-war protesters were denied the same moral plane, the Civil Rights Era, and Dr. King along with it, has been re-branded as peacefully non-violent. Somehow this frames the jailing, beatings, bombings and other Bull Connor-isms of the time all the more dramatically. For Dr. King to have succeeded despite those conditions seems to impute an exceptional level of moral fortitude, placing him above the crude, non-violent tactics of the protests that followed his death.

But the method to his movement was hardly peaceful. Take the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. In it, he calls for protesters to collectively create a “crisis-packed situation,” arguing that ” . . . freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Dr. King wasn’t just kind of aggressive, his success was a product of his confrontational approach.

It’s easy to write off the debates over criticisms of his memorial statue as semantics. But if any topic deserves splitting hairs, it’s the legacy of Reverend King. He’s held as the epitome of change. If that epitome is not an accurate way to achieve change, then we’re neutering a generation of protestors, eager to exercise their democratic right to assemble in ways that worked in the past. In this sense, perhaps the unveiling of Dr. King’s statue bears special meaning to the protestors occupying Wall Street.

If the sculpture makes King look confrontational, perhaps that’s because he really was.

If you write to RAJIV NARAYAN at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu he will judge the content of your character by the characters of your content.

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