[Below is an essay originally published on the JAJ site on ML King Day, 2004. Other than the reference to Jesse Jackson at the end (he has, fortunately, disappeared for the most part, in the last eight years), it still hold’s true, so I thought I would republish it this year:]
Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday seems to be an also-ran among American holidays. This is unfortunate because King’s birthday should (arguably) be seen as the quintessential American holiday. Unfortunately it has been hijacked by those with an agenda that contradicts King’s vision. Because this agenda is at best silly and worst offensive it is easy to dismiss the third Monday in January as a soap box for the whiney. But before we do that, let’s take another look.
Although the controversy has subsided, it is without doubt a controversial day. Two presidential birthdays were subsumed into a single celebration when Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday were transformed into Presidents Day. King, on the other hand, was not only not a president, he never held elected office. Furthermore, he was far from perfect. His sins and failures have been paraded out often enough that we need not hang out that dirty laundry again. In short, he is an unlikely figure to be the figurehead of a civic celebration.
But is he the appropriate unlikely figurehead? Let’s consider his life again.
King stood for the triumph of the individual against all that de-individualizes people. In King’s case, the issue was equal rights for blacks. King’s message was that blacks were people too and it was time that they stood up and acted like it, in spite of the reality that the laws of his day said th at blacks, as a class, were second rate, and the culture of his day treated them as a bloc rather than as persons. (The latter problem hasn’t changed a great deal over the years.)
If we strip away the cultural particularity of Martin Luther King Jr, he could be in England or Holland, ready to board the boat to the new world, or standing before the Continental Congress explaining why, in light of the evils of the British empire, this new union needed to be formed.
The French sociologist Jacques Ellul makes an excellent case that one of the key messages of the Bible is that “The City,” “Babylon,” “organized human culture” (whatever you want to call it) is fundamentally dehumanizing. As a result of sin, politics is transformed from the art of governance into the rule of tyranny. One of the fundamental human struggles, east of Eden, is the struggle to overcome the tyranny of those in control. The dilemma of course is that the tyranny of anarchy is far worse than the tyranny of government. Thus we come to this sublime experiment in democracy that seeks to play these evils off one another in order to achieve a balance that is essentially good.
But the balance is never perfect. The state inevitably dehumanizes in its efforts to bring order. So it is always necessary for someone outside the state to stand up and say, “Enough!” Those outsiders are often later lifted up to be monarch or absolute ruler (such as George Washington – fortunately he refused). In the case of Martin Luther King, Jr., he was murdered before anyone had an opportunity to do this. As a result, from this day forth his voice, always outside the mainstream, can be heard saying, “You are human! (… even though the state doesn’t treat you that way.) Step up to the plate and take your place in the batting order! This is what America is all about.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. could not have been Martin Luther King, Jr. if he were an elected official, an insider wielding the dehumanizing power of the state. The very nature of this holiday demands an outsider.
Unfortunately, an essay in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. cannot be finished without a nod to Jesse Jackson, the great co-opter of this grand tradition. What Jesse Jackson has done to this holiday is abominable. He has taken it and turned it on its head. His message is that we cannot be human without the state and we must therefore turn to the savior state to redeem us from the namelessness of non-recognition by the state. (And he dares to call himself a Christian leader!) That is as far from Martin Luther King’s vision of American civil rights (and Christian religion) as you can get.
So be a good American. Get out and celebrate on the M L King Jr Birthday celebration … but only because you’re human, not because the federal government declared it a holiday and told you to do it.