The Rest of the Speech

It’s Martin Luther King Day.

We could have a game. I’ll list all of the typical responses to King and his day and we’ll all run around the internet looking for instances of them, first one to find them all wins a photo of my here-to-fore underphotographed left boob.

I’m thinking of things like

–Why do black people get their own day? White people don’t get one.

–King was a plagiarist and a communist.

–King said, “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.” therefore we owe it to him to quickly do away with affirmative action.

Yeah, really, I’m thinking of how much we white folks love that line. Let’s see it again, shall we?

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.

A whole speech full of stuff we ignore just so we can skip ahead to the part we think requires black people to stop asking us to acknowledge that their skin color matters. Yep, we’re suckers for calls for racial justice that put us on the side of the angels (see Freedom Writers).

But King isn’t calling for a society that is willfully colorblind. Blackness matters. Whiteness matters. He looks forward to a time when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” a time when, “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.” He’s not calling for some utopia* where everyone only sees each other as brothers and sisters.

He’s aiming for a reachable point where we at least see each other also as brothers and sisters.

He’s not saying that this state is reached by judging his children only by the contents of their character; he’s saying that we will realize we’ve reached this state when his children are judged only by the contents of their character. We tend to confuse the results with the process.

And, frankly, for good reason. Because the process he outlines is difficult.

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. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence 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.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” 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 our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. 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.

We, white and black, have to realize that our destinies are tied together and that our freedoms are bound to each other. And then, we must work for real change, change that by King’s standard, we’re not very far along on. Black men are still regularly victims of unspeakable horrors of police brutality. There are still plenty of places where black folks know they aren’t welcome. There are still disenfranchised voters in Mississippi (and the rest of the country) and there are still plenty of folks who believe they have nothing to vote for. And, while these things remain serious problems for black people, they’ve become systemic for all of us (because, to reiterate, our destinies are tied together).

Anyway, my point is that we’ve done a great disservice to King’s legacy by turning him into some easy-to-live-with dynamic public speaker instead of remembering him as the prophet** he was.

*There’s a way in which wanting to read King as some kind of utopian can be seen as the same urge that faults him for having human fallacies, that urge to create unspoken standards and then fault him for not living up to them.

**In the “here’s what’s fucked up about society and here’s what God’s people need to do about changing it and here’s how we’ll recognize when the change has happened” sense, not in the “I see a bright future where we can all just forget about this unpleasantness” way. Prophet, not fortune teller.


Sorry we didn’t finish up with the game. I got distracted by my larger point.

Update on Monday, January 15, 2007 at 11:49AM

Hutch reminds me that Mark has been over this same ground, too.

11 thoughts on “The Rest of the Speech

  1. I’ve always liked his "Drum Major Instinct" sermon better, myself. They have a recording of it playing in the Ebenezer Baptist Church every morning and it seems as fresh now as it did forty years ago:The other day I was saying, I always try to do a little converting when I’m in jail. And when we were in jail in Birmingham the other day, the white wardens and all enjoyed coming around the cell to talk about the race problem. And they were showing us where we were so wrong demonstrating. And they were showing us where segregation was so right. And they were showing us where intermarriage was so wrong. So I would get to preaching, and we would get to talking—calmly, because they wanted to talk about it. And then we got down one day to the point—that was the second or third day—to talk about where they lived, and how much they were earning. And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, "Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. [laughter] You’re just as poor as Negroes." And I said, "You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people. (Yes) And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you’re so poor you can’t send your children to school. You ought to be out here marching with every one of us every time we have a march."Now that’s a fact. That the poor white has been put into this position, where through blindness and prejudice, he is forced to support his oppressors. And the only thing he has going for him is the false feeling that he’s superior because his skin is white—and can’t hardly eat and make his ends meet week in and week out.And not only does this thing go into the racial struggle, it goes into the struggle between nations. And I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy. And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend, I’m sorely afraid that we won’t be here to talk about Jesus Christ and about God and about brotherhood too many more years. …But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. "I must be first." "I must be supreme." "Our nation must rule the world." (Preach it) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now. God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. The God that I worship has a way of saying, "Don’t play with me." He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, "Don’t play with me, Israel. Don’t play with me, Babylon. Be still and know that I’m God."I bet you that you won’t see this one on the network news tonight…

  2. Nope. I’m here. We have to give up some parking for the MLK day events, but that’s the extent of our recognizing the day.Aw, Brittney, definitely if I’d gone on with the contest, that would have had to been in there.Bridgett, ha, that’s for sure.

  3. Few things make me angrier than to be told that "King Day is a holiday for black people." It seems to be missing the point in such a major way.

  4. Dear aunt b, can I link this post under a comic? You see, I make shitty comics and for today’s shitty comic I was going to link some informational material..

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, and I thank you for the link to my site. But aside from that, I think this is one of the best tributes to King’s memory that I’ve seen. Do you mind if I link to this on my blog?

  6. Wow, Sylvia. Kind words. Thanks. And sure, go ahead and link. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the purpose of the internet.

  7. Aunt B, I hate to ruin the mood, but I’m linking to you for a different reason (see link above). In sum, we don’t have to put Al Sharpton out of business before we can claim "real change" on issues of race in our country.

  8. You forgot the one where someone attempting to play "I’m a better liberal than you are" pulls a quote in which you argue that both blacks and whites share a common condition (with blacks bearing the brunt of the abuse) to criticize you as a demagogue (WTF?) for not recognizing that whites and blacks share a common condition. The key phrase (for the reading comprehension impaired) was "while these things remain serious problems for black people, they’ve become systemic for all of us." Drink twice if the response contains an odd mention of Al Sharpton that has nothing to do with the original post.

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