Saturday, April 5, 2008

sanitize martin luther king, Jr.

When white people look back in history, their view is often distorted because they're wearing white-colored glasses.

As Andrew Golis says, Martin Luther King, Jr. was far more radical than we tend to remember him being:

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a democratic socialist.

He never called himself that in public. Cold War red-baiting was still powerful and haunted him even before his rhetoric turned to class. But his organizing was increasingly in that vein and in private he spoke of his support for democratic socialism. He was organizing a Poor People’s Campaign and talking about the necessity to build an interracial movement for economic justice.

This is one of the many challenging facts that is lost in what Cornell West calls the Santa Clausification of MLK:

He just becomes a nice little old man with a smile with toys in his bag, not a threat to anybody, as if his fundamental commitment to unconditional love and unarmed truth does not bring to bear certain kinds of pressure to a status quo. So the status quo feels so comfortable as though it’s a convenient thing to do rather than acknowledge him as to what he was, what the FBI said, “The most dangerous man in America.” Why? Because of his fundamental commitment to love and to justice and trying to keep track of the humanity of each and every one of us.

UPDATE: Jeff Cohen explains in fuller detail what white Americans prefer to forget about MLK.

UPDATE II: I decided to change the original title of this post, "emasculate MLK," after thinking it wasn't quite right, and then having that confirmed by Restructure!, who correctly implied in the comments (if I read into it right) that equating power with masculinity overlooks other modes of power. I'm not sure that the new word, "misremember," is specific enough to capture what this post is getting at, so I'm all ears for a better way to get it right. (UPDATE II.5 -- thesciencegirl has provided an even better word, "sanitize," so I've change the title again. UPDATE II...5.5? As afro dyte points out, MLK was considered in his day "the most dangerous man in America," and as Cornel West has noted, what white America has done to him since should be labeled "the Santa Clausification of Dr. King.")

UPDATE III: A new memorial to King is being prepared for the national mall in Washington, D.C., and Chinese sculptor has won the statuary competition with a bold, assertive image of King.

 Predictably, as Ibram Rogers writes at The Root, calls have arisen for a kinder, gentler image:

The night before he was assassinated in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously roared that he had "been to the mountaintop" and he had "seen the promised land" of freedom, justice, and equality. 

That spirit in the final phase of King's life has been captured brilliantly by Chinese sculptor, Lei Yixin, who was commissioned to design the centerpiece for King's memorial on the National Mall in Washington. In his models for the statue, Lei captures King as a man firmly rooted in the inalienable rights of humanity, his arms folded, looking intensely for us to take hold of the tools he left us to climb to freedom's mountaintop.

Now the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts which selected Lei has criticized his design and is recommending a more sympathetic rendering of King. The current, more defiant, rendering, the panel said, reflects a "genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries." Commission secretary Thomas Luebke added, in a letter to the foundation responsible for the King Memorial, that "the proposed treatment of the sculpture - as the most iconographic and central element of the memorial to Dr. King - would be unfortunate and inappropriate as an expression of his legacy."

In its simplest terms, the panel said the representation of King is too "confrontational." At best, this assessment reflects historical ignorance. At worst, it seems tied to a larger societal effort to distort, co-opt, and water-down King's legacy. . . .

Lei's design is not only an accurate depiction of the image we should see of King in our historical memory, it is a prescient depiction of how King would likely confront the country now.


  1. Hey look, if MLK is going to be immortalized and turned into a legend, he's going to be a legend on white folk terms. That means all things white and beautiful. We like our heros to be all-Amurkkin, gentle giants who believe in truth justice and Amurkkin democracy, freedom, liberty, apple pie, and corn fed goodness. He sure as hell aint gonna be no commie sympathizer!

  2. Stuff Men Do: Use the term "emasculate" to indicate weakness.

  3. Point well taken, restructure, thank you, and I've been considering a rewrite of the title of this post for just that reason. I think "neutralize" is a better word, so I may well change it to that, unless someone can suggest a better word? Maybe "sanitize"?

  4. White people do some dumb shit



Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code