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.

3 Comments:

Blogger Regina said...

Hello Carl,
It is nice to see you update your blog. We do not know each other, but we met at Pendle Hill this past summer. I have since discovered your blog. Thank you for sharing yourself and your thoughts so openly with others. Howard Thurman is the radical man of faith I am reacquainting myself with these days.
Blessings and Peace,
Regina Renee

8:39 PM, December 11, 2009  
Blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

THANK YOU for this post.

One of the things I find most dismaying, working in a public school system that celebrates MLK as the patron saint of civil rights, is how safe and tidy the narrative we share with children is becoming. It comes to seem inevitable, like the happy ending of a fairy tale, the changes that real men and women sweated and bled for. And it breeds a kind of complacency: there are the token saints, like MLK or Gandhi, who inevitably enter the stage of history and change it in ways that are obviously correct, and then there are the rest of us, who will of course easily see what is right and cheer when the heroes, like MLK, make change.

The lesson is that ordinary people need risk nothing; that our struggles have nothing to do with the struggles of our heroes, who are at one and the same time more than human and less than human, and that all truly just causes prevail magically in the end.

For this reason, when I taught American Lit to high school juniors and seniors last year, I refused to teach the "I have a dream" speech without the context of the speech MLK made the day before his death, and furthermore, the contrasting witness of Malcolm X--who none of them had ever heard of, by the way. I wanted my students to see the movement and the man in the context of controversy and struggle that frames all real change.

I don't know how far I succeeded in my hopes, but I feel the lack of a realistic, fuller context whenever the context of race and civil rights arises in my classroom.

I sometimes feel that MLK is being prepped for a Disney version of his life and work, and that it will bear even less resemblance to his reality and ours than did the movie Pocahontas!

9:00 AM, January 08, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

11:38 PM, January 09, 2010  

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