Friday, December 11, 2009

MLK Garden Gnome?

It was really good to read some Martin Luther King this week. I had last read some stuff about King a year ago. David Hartsough, a Quaker peace activist who was active in the Civil Rights struggle as a white Freedom Rider, gave me a book by Dr. Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (2008). The main thesis of the book is about how history is trying to make King into a sweet black man with a “Dream” of little black children and little white children playing on a merry-go-round together. Harding insists that by the end of his life, King’s vision was much, much more radical than that.
(Note: Hartsough is still a serious peace activist, and when I passed the book on to Chris Moore-Backman, war tax resistor, he was inspired to expand his extensive study of Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy to King and the civil rights movement more generally.)
Harding acknowledges that until the last few years of his life, King’s vision was largely focused on racial equality, with awareness of poverty as symptomatic, but not systematic. We know that King worked closely with, and greatly respected the perspective of his friend Bayard Rustin, whose perspective definitely tied together racial justice, economic justice, and pacifism. The Vietnam War was part of the catalyst for King’s more comprehensive critique, and eventually King had tied militarism, poverty, and racism all together, with a pretty indictment of consumerism as well.
Harding not only tracks King’s conceptual journey, however. Mostly, Harding is focused on the personal, emotional, and spiritual hammering that King took, which opened him to a more radical (root) analysis. Harding talks about King’s near-fatal stabbing, constant death threats, criticism from whites and blacks who supported civil rights while still advocating moderateness, disheartening efforts in the North, and even alludes to King’s smoking, drinking, and womanizing. In particular, however, Harding cites the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama by the Ku Klux Klan, which killed three little black girls as a turning point for King.
This made me think of how Cesar Chavez ratcheted down strike operations after a union member was killed. To be a leader of a non-violent movement, and to have innocents involved in the movement killed, partially because of the tension created by your witness, must be a very heavy burden for persons utterly dedicated to Love as the motive force in the universe. Gandhi did not take it lightly, either.
Harding insists that the post “I Have a Dream” Martin Luther King was a substantially different man than the previous one. And, he points out; history is determined to water MLK down to a sweet-faced Negro pleading for harmony, instead of a powerful intellect combined with an abiding spirituality and a deep social critique. I think that this is also true to some degree of Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and W.E.B. Du Bois. The Apple computer ads that featured the public domain images of Gandhi, John Lennon, Albert Einstein, and even Jane Goodall tend to trivialize how radical these people were in their critique of the modern, technologized, consumer society, its politics and economics.
I went out in the backyard this morning to sit in the sun and read my MLK book, A Testament of Hope. At one point, I glanced up to ponder a point that King was making, and my eye came randomly to rest on the two foot high statue of St. Francis that is sitting in the middle of my Dad’s vegetable garden (to scare the birds away?). I asked my Dad about the statue and I think that he said that someone from his Franciscan affinity group had given it to him when she moved from a house with a yard to an apartment. The “Franciscan Affinity Group” originally formed as a bunch of Catholics (lay, monks, nuns, and priests) who were protesting the nuclear arms race at the Nevada Test Site in the 1980’s. Over the years, its composition has changed to include a few non-Catholics, like my dad.
I went to one of their meetings when they were considering whether to stop calling themselves the Franciscan Affinity Group since they weren’t all Catholic, or even theists. This was a conversation that had been before. They went around the circle and responded gently to the question, until they came to my Dad. My Dad was raised Congregationalist and has been Quaker since his undergraduate years at Whittier. He’s not Catholic. He took a long pause and then said, “Well, St. Francis opposed the imbalance of wealth distribution in the world, he dedicated his life to God, he loved the Earth, he opposed war, he lived simply, and he spoke truth to the greatest power of his day. I feel that I am a Franciscan.”
Francis of Assisi was a radical. He is also a lawn ornament; a garden gnome with fake birds on his hands and real bird shit on his head. The world-changing life and witness of this man has been lost, watered down, sanitized, made innocuous and even silly. Rosa Parks was not just a tired seamstress who wouldn’t move to the back of the bus. She was trained as an activist at the Highlander Institute, and she was part of a strategic action to end Jim Crow.
For all of these saints—Dorothy Day, MLK, Cesar Chaves, St. Francis, Rosa Parks, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and quintessentially, Jesus of Nazareth, the beating radical heart of their faith and witness still lives, despite efforts to turn them into Pablum, and these sacred hearts light the way forward for us in the darkness.