Martin Luther King, Jr. is an authentic American hero. Don’t just take my word for it. Ask the National Park Service, schoolchildren, or even the NBA, which stages an annual MLK Day game. 44 years after his death, King enjoys unofficial “Founder” status. Indeed, similar to Washington and Jefferson, we check our national body politic against his standard. Thus, every year around this time, pundits wonder how he would assess our stewardship of his legacy.
In this never-ending self-evaluation, we inevitably fall short. In the process, however, we forget that a radical, social revolutionary has, somehow, moved into the pantheon of American greats: a status formerly the exclusive reserve of white, slaveholding Founders and Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps not the “dream” King had in mind, but an accomplishment nonetheless. In this hour of the American left’s discontent, King’s ascendance offers a necessary lesson. From the gubernatorial recall in Wisconsin to influencing Obama’s second-term agenda, 2012 is a fateful year and offers political opportunity.
Let’s be precise in describing the very imprecise world of ideological categories. In America, the left and liberals might make common cause, but they are not the same. As reform capitalists, liberals largely accept the basic contours of U.S. society and seek, in varying degrees, to ameliorate its excesses. In contrast, leftists, like King, are much less sanguine; they want fundamental change.
As a liberal, I deeply admire King not just for his radical, post-racial vision but also for his audacious realism. Even cursory reading of American political history tells us that America is not kind to homegrown radicals. Sure, the Wobblies and the Black Panthers might have had their moments, but both quickly faded into obscurity. In the parlance of Hollywood, the American left is the “key grip,” not the star. Responsible for lighting the set, the key grip shapes the audiences’ mood and orientation and possesses substantial, if subtle, power. Rather than appreciating its delicate clout, today’s left occupies Wall Street, obsesses over food politics, and drifts toward utter irrelevance.
From labor unions and women’s suffrage to the civil right’s movement, the American left has usually punched well above its weight. It has done so by rooting itself in its particular American context. As Eugene Debs, Margaret Sanger, Woody Guthrie, and King reveal — the left can succeed so long as it adheres to certain American norms. This political jujitsu calls for left to use ingrained biases and ideologies to their advantage rather than battling against them.
Religiosity: Unlike Western Europeans, Americans remain a devoutly religious people. In this way, King’s unabashed religiosity helped make the civil rights movement more palatable. Sure, the vast majority of white Christians failed to join King’s call in the 1960s. In the years hence, however, even conservatives trumpet the civil rights movement. Couching political aims in the moral language average people use renders profound change less threatening.
Social & Political Equality: King’s vision and worldview involved much more than civil rights. However, his signature achievement, political equality, was hardly a foreign concept. The movement’s push for voting and civil equality, as opposed to economic parity, was aimed at America’s broad, white, middle class. Since it was pitched in terms they understood and implicitly embraced (at least for themselves), Middle Americans have overwhelmingly accepted the basic contours of the civil rights revolution.
Mass Movement: From the very start, King understood that eradicating Jim Crow and segregation required a cross-class, multi-racial alliance. Understanding this reality, the reverend spoke to white intellectuals, young people, and the black middle- and lower-class, simultaneously. Yes, the contemporary left still conceives itself as the spokesman for the masses. However, its rhetoric reeks of tired Marxist sloganeering, upper-middle class concerns, and political philosophy aimed at Europe’s social democratic left.
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