As usual, a date crept up on me.
Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a secular saint, admired by all Americans who don’t want their neighbors to think they’ve got a white hood in the closet. He deserves such treatment possibly more than any American political figure since Lincoln. The time when half the nation more or less wanted the man dead has largely gone down the memory hole, just like all the people who voted for Richard Nixon vanished after November of 1963 and again in the fall of 1974. We don’t care to remember these things about ourselves. Thus we rewrite our pasts to something more convenient, putting everyone into the hero’s shoes. Confederates become abolitionists, from Lee on down. Everybody marched with King, even if they continue running against him to this very day. Most white hoods live in minds rather than closets.
We find saints, as Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce had it, by revising and editing dead sinners. Like everybody, King had his flaws. Infamously, he had extramarital affairs. It usually comes up in deliberate attempts to derail discussion of substantive issues. This suits many people just fine, as they would prefer almost anything to having that discussion. I raised the issue here not to get it out of the way or to heap aspersions on a man I consider a genuine hero. We all have human flaws. Expecting perfection might sound idealistic of us, but more often it serves as an excuse for self-defeating cynicism or, worse still, indifference or outright opposition to attempts to ameliorate persistent injustices.
But King’s affairs do run together with his activism in one way. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which earned its bones suppressing black social justice movements, tried to use them as leverage to either induce King’s suicide or force him to quit his activism. The Bureau did so as part of a campaign far older than itself by the American establishment to preserve white supremacy. It might sound perverse to remember King’s enemies on a day set aside to remember him, and use a personal failing of his to do it, but we remember King because we want his life and work to say something about us.
I submit that our forgetting says something about us as well. King might not appreciate our airing his dirty laundry in the process, but I don’t think he would mind the attention drawn to the machinery of white power. You can read the full letter the FBI sent to King here. Beverly Gage’s accompanying essay puts it into some modern context. Jeet Heer, who you really should follow on twitter, gives a broader view in his essay. The American security state in the 1960s, just as it had for centuries, set itself firmly on the side of the whites and saw its chief task as suppressing the blacks. Very little has changed since.
These things did not come about by mistake, any more than forgetting them did. We have expended tremendous effort in the service of white supremacy and very little to counter it. We have this history, and this present, because we wanted them and worked hard to make them so. More than once we have realigned our politics to preserve them against challenges.
Could we redistribute our striving? If doing the right thing for its own sake does not suffice, then it would at least speak to genuine virtues demonstrated rather than the pretend kind exercised with a yearly ritual observance deprived of all context and rendered into a bland exercise in civic patriotism. It might get easier if we had some more practice.