On the mountaintop

Activists could better interpret MLK’s legacy

By Greg Gabrellas

Last week, U of C students observed the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The celebratory events attracted the usual dreamers. The slogans and protest methods seem to remain the same, museum-like: “We shall overcome.” But this year marks the 50th anniversary of two main organizations of the New Left: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The ideas from this past generation appear familiar, but appearances are deceiving.

It is much like when two stargazers spot the same star from different points of view, and by the refraction of the light’s rays, think it is in a different location in the heavens.

We are subject to a similar historical refraction. King desired to see a radical transformation of our society that remains unfulfilled; his vision was not simply egalitarian, but like his predecessors in the Left, he strove to make the world philosophical. But by treating King’s incomplete project as an accomplished fact, contemporary activists risk losing sight of the sweeping political objectives and radical perspective that motivated the dream.

On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King delivered the speech that is known as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The occasion here was a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. In the opening of his speech, King considers his response to the Almighty’s query, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” King reflects on this question, describing a number of appealing possibilities: Ancient Greece, perhaps, to argue philosophy with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; or the Roman Empire; or the Renaissance. But “strangely enough,” King declares, he would be just fine to remain in the latter half of the 20th century.

King’s answer was, of course, ironic. At this time in American history, President Johnson had expanded the war in Vietnam and all but abandoned federal support for the Great Society. King’s attempts at combating racist discrimination throughout the nation, which achieved organizational expression in the Poor People’s Movement, was foundering on seemingly invisible obstructions to equality. The limits of the civil rights movement, in its last efforts to secure economic security to poor blacks, became ever more visible. The “Black Power” slogan flew on the tail of race riots and existential angst among the student movement in its desire to see immediate revolutionary change “by any means necessary.” If there was a time for King to wind up and go home, this was it.

Perhaps King was being coy? Not at all. He emphasized that the world was on the verge of a human rights revolution, in which the masses across the world, from Johannesburg and Accra to New York City, were rising to grasp their freedom. “Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars,” he declared. King was confident that, despite the odds, never had the fruits of civilization come so near to being realized for the human race. Never were peace and justice so close to being secured for all time.

King was murdered the next evening, shot dead on the balcony of his second-story motel room, igniting race riots across the nation.

King’s closest followers, Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young, literally dipped their hands in the martyr’s blood as he was dying and went on to use their clout to bury radical reform in their own opportunistic ambitions for political status.

But in the face of it all, activists have since failed to constructively learn from and succeed the leadership of Martin Luther King. Partly, this is a result of their clinging to activist models, like community organizing in inner-city ghettos, that have dominated students’ efforts at mass political mobilization with very little gained. In fact, it was the language of “community self-determination” that enabled protest to be integrated firmly within the constraints of the Great Society initiatives of the federal government. These programs suffocated without adequate financial support, as public goods were passed off to churches and community-based organizations that were more responsive to private foundations than public constituencies. All this took place under the watchful eye of former civil rights activists—“decentralization.” Far from being the persistent dissidents of civil rights dissolution, the succeeding generations of activists up to the present generation are in certain respects largely to blame. The night is darkened as if by smog; The invocation of past dreams seems to obscure the path to freedom, squelching our sight of the stars.

Our generation’s mistake, which there is still time to correct, is to presume that King’s struggles were complete, but in such a way as to flatten his mountaintop into a mole-hill. Thus, every organizing drive today speciously resembles the protest days of old, despite the near-total collapse of the labor movement and dissolution of a coherent political framework in the face of identity politics. But when everything is a revolution, from tenant organizing to anti-war protests, even basic, substantive reform like universal health care slips below the horizon. Yet it was King’s partial success at reaching the stars that made visible the extent to which another crest loomed on the horizon. King attempted to carry out a revolution through reform and underestimated the extent to which his methods would come up against social obstacles that demanded nothing less than class struggle. But the problem was not solved by reversing the equation either, to demand immediate revolution “by any means necessary.” Rather, the task was, and still is, to connect in a mass political movement demands for both revolutionary freedom and meaningful reform. King reflected on this dilemma despite unsuccessfully resolving it. Our present situation demands no less courage, lest we unintentionally replace an emancipatory vision of the future with the grim nightmare we face today.

— Greg Gabrellas is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in the Social Sciences.