Reflections on MLK Day

(Note: This is a slightly modified version of a blog post I originally wrote in 2011.)

I doubt that I need to inform anyone what today is. But before I talk about what this day means to me, I want to say something that this day is not. It is not, as some people have suggested, the only national holiday in the United States set aside for an individual. Occasionally, you will see somebody bemoaning how Martin Luther King has his own holiday but not George Washington. Usually, this gripe will include comments about how George Washington was supposedly so much more moral than Martin Luther King. Even if every claim ever made about King’s womanizing is true, I still do not see how we can consider Washington to be his moral superior, given the fact that the man owned, bought, sold, and whipped human beings due to their skin color. Furthermore, Presidents’ Day originated and is officially recognized as George Washington’s birthday. Christopher Columbus also enslaved and otherwise brutalized human beings of a different race yet he has his own federal holiday. Finally, the last time I checked, Christmas is a national holiday, and it is of course set aside to honor Jesus Christ. Now, I would like to look at what qualifies King for a national holiday. We all are probably aware of the horror of Jim Crow. That vile legal system is one of the worst blights on the United States. The way in which some Americans were given freedom and opportunity while others were singled out for persecution was perhaps on some level worse than the sort of even-handed oppression that occurred at the same time in Soviet Russia. That was the greatest piece of adversity that Dr. King had to free the black community from. The other obstacle that King had to remove, however, came from the black community itself. On the one hand were activists like Malcolm X who advocated a sort of racial separatism that would actually help hold blacks down by showing solidarity with policies such as school segregation and interracial marriage bans. On the other hand was the school of thought pioneered by Booker T. Washington, which stated that African Americans should remain passive in the face of oppression. Martin Luther King, Jr. showed African Americans that they could strive to be on equal footing with whites and for the freedom to choose their own schools, neighborhoods, spouses, and places of recreation without the constraint of race. He also showed African Americans that they were stronger than they realized, that they did not have to bow down to abuse, and that they could work together with like-minded whites to achieve their goals. King’s movement was not limited by robotic adherence to the law or by party loyalty. He was aware, when even many blacks and whites fighting for racial equality were not, that it was justified and essential to unlawfully resist the corrupt state governments of the South. While battling Southern Democrats, he formed alliances with Northern Republicans and Democrats. One of the ways in which he prodded John F. Kennedy to action was with the threat that Nelson Rockefeller, New York’s Republican governor and a staunch MLK supporter, might beat Kennedy to the punch and thereby put more black votes in the GOP column. Much more important than his focus on nonviolence was his eschewing of all racial hatred. One of his close confidantes was Stanley Levison, a Jewish New Yorker. King’s life and message is a guidebook for the Gay Rights Movement. Some people claim that gays and lesbians are too demanding and should adopt a more conciliatory approach. They argue that the community should accept a compromise such as civil unions, as opposed to full marriage equality. Like King, gay activists must insist that their rights are not contingent upon the good will of other people. In 2004, when Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Fransisco began engaging in civil disobedience by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, many criticized him for violating state law. Like King, gays and lesbians must applaud civil disobedience in the name of justice. They must not fear to be disruptive, aggressive, and confrontational. And like King, they must not be afraid to form alliances with supportive heterosexuals. In conjunction with this, it is important for the Gay Rights Movement to stand firm in the face of people who accuse them of hijacking the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. Gay activists must insist that the shared characteristics of legal oppression based on an immutable trait, along with the myriad of ways in which segregationist tactics mirror gay bashing tactics, make the comparison valid. Of course, there will be some veterans of the Civil Rights Movement—Fred Shuttlesworth, Walter Fauntroy—who claim that the comparison is offensive. This simply forces gays and lesbians to remind everyone that the racism-homophobia comparison has been made by Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, and Julian Bond, all of them veterans of the Civil Rights Movements. Remind everyone that Bayard Rustin, one of King’s closest advisers, was forced to remain in the shadows of the movement because he was gay. Remember that Rustin later delivered a speech stating that gay was the new black. Remember that Mildred Loving, African American pioneer in the Supreme Court case legalizing interracial marriage, stated before her death that the comparison between interracial marriage and gay marriage was valid. And lastly remember the words of Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”



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2 responses to “Reflections on MLK Day

  1. Kelly

    Very interesting and informative. Really enjoyed this!

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