Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (2005)
Bill Long 1/21/05
Thinking About the Day
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day really lasts a week at Willamette University, with the events of the week culminating this year in a superb performance by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, whose music sandwiched a thoughtful and stimulating message by Dr. Vincent Harding, long-time friend of Dr. King and now a professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. As I was being challenged by the message and moved by the music, however, I began to think not so much about MLK and his legacy but about the celebration of MLK through MLK day/week. My thoughts led me to ask, and try to answer several questions. Three of them follow.
Question I: How do you Celebrate a Hero?
There is no question but that the organizers see Dr. King as a hero and wanted us to adopt that idea, too. The concept of hero is probably one of the most overused ones in America today, becoming a staple of patriotic or inspirational speeches ever since Lenny Skutnick pulled someone out of the Potomac and was lionized by Ronald Reagan as a hero for doing so about 20 years ago. Though I am not opposed to the idea of heroes, the more fundamental question is whether you celebrate a hero through uncritical adulation, a sort of "worshipful" approach to hero, or through critical review? Willamette chose the former route tonight. To me, however, it always seems a bit contrived for a university to orchestrate a worshipful approach to someone--even God, for that matter.
If you want to treat someone as a hero to be imitated, and only speak admiringly of him (in this case) as a hero, it seems to me that the first question you have to ask is whether the heroic person ever really wanted people to imitate him. Did Dr. King want people to imitate him? How do we know? What texts or sermons, etc would we draw upon? That is really the first question of method... My suspicion is that he probably did not want imitation. He probably would have urged us to follow God in our own ways. So, why the emphasis on imitating someone that might not have wanted to be imitated? And, even if he did seek imitators, why should we take that as the last word? Shouldn't those desires be subject to critical scrutiny? That is, why should someone think that others should imitate him?
Thus, I have a significant historical and methodological problem with emphasizing the importance of imitating the hero. It begs so many questions that it is difficult to keep a straight face as a listener.
Question II: What Sources do you draw upon as you Celebrate MLK Jr.s Life?
This question has two components to it. First, do you celebrate his life by drawing primarily on events in which he was active or events of the period generally? Second, when you get around to focusing on his life, do you zoom in on the "heroic moments" (i.e., March on Washington speech, Selma/Birmingham days) or do you look at his life in general as a resource? And, when you look at his life, do you look primarily for inspiring examples, or are critical failures, conflicts, and unresolved inner tensions a fertile source for insight?
I think that it is clear to me/America now that MLK Jr has attained an iconic status in American life. That is, when one thinks of Jefferson, one thinks Declaration of Independence; Lincoln, Civil War and Gettysburg Adddress; King, Civil Rights and "I Have a Dream." But now that King has achieved iconic status, why shouldn't we draw upon all the records to give a wide-ranging view of the matter? Certainly MLK Jr has been and will be attacked by racists and others who want to denigrate or ignore his contributions, just as Nazi sympathizers minimize the Holocaust, but MLK Jrs contribution is so firmly fixed now in the national consciousness (because of the "sound byte" that I just listed), that MLK days ought not simply try to "pump" the guy. I think the reason that attendance is not what was expected is that people know that they are basically going to church for the evening, and something just doesn't seem right about that. Though the speaker did emphasize the need to get beyond the "frozen" period of MLK Jr in the March on Washington, for example, he was unable to get beyond the approach of MLK's life as moral example. To me that isn't very interesting, much less convincing, anymore.
III. What is the Future of MLK Jr. Day?
Frankly, I think we should either have concerts, without laudatory comments, or critical conferences, where a range of scholarly opinion on MLKs contributions is voiced, but no more worship services under the guise of a "celebration." I think if MLK Jr celebrations continue the way that they have been, the attendance will decline further, and critical comment about MLK Jr and the Civil Rights movement will generally be a taboo subject on campus. So, in my judgment, we cannot have it two ways.
If we are a university first, we cannot have a fully laudatory MLK Jr. celebration. If, however, we see ourselves primarily as an ideologically-driven institution, then bring all the celebrations you want, not only of MLK Jr. but of vegetarianism or animal rights or gay rights or the "Neocon movememt" or anything else. Let's not confuse the subject, however, by having academicians giving rather simple homiletical advice regarding a man who was probably anything but simple. Under the guise of trying to "help" students see the "truth," we might inadvertently be adding to their (and our) confusion.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long