Monday, January 17, 2011

King's New Birth of Freedom

The Vitality of the Day. Martin Luther King's birthday means many things and it should mean many things if it is to remain a meaningful holiday. Martin Luther King was an extremely protean figure. He was the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a creative force in social protest, an advocate for non-violent social protest, and a brutal critic of American society in general and American foreign policy in particular. Since his death in 1968, King has also become a symbol for the accomplishments of the civil rights era as a whole and a symbol for what's best in American society. Moreover, MLK has become a symbol for the aspirations of humanity as a whole. Here, the reverence given to King since his death has not been unlike that accorded to Nelson Mandela after his release from prison. With the still growing fame of the "I Have a Dream" speech, the fact that many of his writings are now required readings in history classes, and the proliferation of cartoons, books, and other commemorations, Martin Luther King's public persona continues to grow with the passage of time.

Americans celebrate MLK's birthday in a variety of ways. For African-Americans, it's a way to celebrate the emergence of black people from the bondage of segregation and MLK's birthday is a particular point of celebration for African-American groups, churches, civic organizations, and political figures. For millions of others, the celebration of MLK's birthday is a way to promote Christianity, commemorate King's vision of non-violence, participate in social service projects, and reflect on both the good and bad trends in American society. This year, President Obama seems to think of King's Birthday somewhat as a generalized version of Earth Day.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama planned to mark the day by participating in a service project in Washington.
"Martin Luther King Jr. lived his life for others, dedicating his work to ensuring equal opportunity, freedom and justice for all," Obama said in a statement. "I encourage every American to observe this holiday in honor of Dr. King's selfless legacy by volunteering in their own communities and by dedicating time each day to bettering the lives of those around us."
MLK in American History. MLK's Birthday should also be celebrated because the decisive role King and his movement have played in American history. King's historical significance might be best illustrated through a reference to Abraham Lincoln. Standing on the battlefield of Gettysburg to commemorate the cemetary for fallen soliders, Lincoln resolved that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

That's a good way to summarize what Martin Luther King worked for and what he symbolizes: a new birth of freedom that fulfills the historical promise of America's democratic republic.

In fact, King was a good deal more successful in establishing a new birth of freedom than Lincoln.

In January, 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and all slaves were eventually freed and their civic rights recognized by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution.

But Lincoln's "new birth of freedom" was overwhelmed by the forces of reaction. The white supremacist backlash was nationwide, but the South also created a brutal system of segregation that was worse than South African apartheid. Slavery was over, but what was established in its place could hardly be called "freedom" for black people. The new birth of freedom imagined by Lincoln cost 600,000 soldier deaths during the civil war but did not take root in American society.

Where Lincoln and abolitionism failed, King and the civil rights movement succeeded. The Montgomery bus boycott and Brown v Board of Education inaugurated an activist era that established African-American legal and political rights, opened doors to economic opportunity, and overcame much of the pervasive stigmatizing of blackness in American society.

Once again, there was a powerful wave of conservative reaction, but reaction decisively lost during the 1970's and 1980's. It's not insignificant that it was Ronald Reagan who signed the legislation establishing MLK's birthday as a national holiday. Although Reagan himself had given a state's rights speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi only a few years earlier, Reagan's people largely decided that proving they weren't racists was more important than maintaining official conservative opposition to civil rights. By the 1980's, white racists were subject to much the same stigmatizing as they themselves visited on African-Americans and political conservatives were looking for ways to escape being stereotyped as racists.

They still are.

Generalizing the New Birth of Freedom. Martin Luther King is also an appropriate symbol for the whole range of social protest movements from the 1960's, including movements for women, gay people, the disabled, the immigrant population, Native Americans, and other groups. With the success of the civil rights movement, other stigmatized populations saw their opportunity to achieve recognition of their full humanity in American society and used the kind of creative protests that characterized the civil rights era. Feminists, gay rights activists, hispanic activists, and other groups have successfully have viewed themselves as following up on the civil rights movement and have built on the wide range of marches, rallies, civil disobedience tactics, economic boycotts, and disruptive tactics employed by civil rights activists during the 1950's and 1960's.

As was the case with the civil rights movement, all of these other social movements have made fundamental advances and those advances have proven to be permanent despite determined conservative opposition. Obviously, a full civil rights agenda has not been adopted for either gay people or immigrants, but gay people have made enormous gains in employment, housing, media representation, military service, and marriage and there isn't much of a threat that their gains will be rolled back. The presence of immigrants isn't about to be rolled back either.

All of these other movements have their own symbols. However, given that all of these movements stood on the shoulders of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King can legitimately serve as a national symbol for the accomplishments of those movements as well.

Over the last fifty years, American society has experienced a new birth of freedom on a world-historical scale and Martin Luther King is a fitting symbol for that new birth.

MLK and the Meaning of the Past. Martin Luther King wrote in "Letter from Birmingham Jail" that

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

King was claiming the civil rights movement was bringing the nation back to its roots in the founding fathers, Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. In a certain way, nothing could be farther from the truth. Many of the Founding Fathers were slave owners, Jefferson did not mean the "rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to apply to black people any more than he meant them to apply to women, and the authors of the Constitution wrote the protection of slavery into the founding document.

But King and the civil rights movement not only changed the present, they also changed the meaning of the past. Whether it's child history videos, grade school history books, or academic historical writing, the founding era has been re-evaluated in terms of it's part in the story of progress toward the civil rights movement. Looking at the Founding Fathers isn't just a matter of evaluating their part in the Revolution and Constitution, it's become a matter of examining their relation to slavery and abolition, their treatment of black slaves if they were slave owners, and their stance on the rights of black freedmen if they were not slave owners. Whether we today can identify with the Founding Fathers is now a matter of how they relate to our concerns for the broader freedoms that have been inaugurated in our era.

Some of the Founding Fathers have come off better, some worse. It's hard to find any of them who believed in full black equality as Americans do now, but we tend to follow Martin Luther King in defining meaning of the freedom promised in the Founding documents as freedom for everybody. In other words, we now look at the Founding Fathers through a political lens that was defined by Martin Luther King.

The Fourth of July. The monumental significance of the Fourth of July, 1776 is that it was the day that the Continental Congress declared independence from Britain. It's the foundation stone for a positive sense of American nationhood and the core values of freedom and equality associated with the American republic. The current age is just as important to the history of the American republic because figures like Martin Luther King greatly expanded the reach of freedom and political equality promised in the original founding. Perhaps the best way to understand Martin Luther King's Birthday is that it is the Fourth of July for the new American republic that's been created over the last fifty years.

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