By Joseph Orosco (February 1, 2018)
I was asked by several folks to share my talk that I gave for the City of Corvallis Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration 2018, sponsored by the King Legacy Advisory Board. This is a talk that builds on an essay I wrote shortly after the white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville in summer 2017.
Loving the Radical King
City of Corvallis Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration 2018
As someone who regularly teaches about the political philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., I often spend time discussing with students the ways in which King’s ideas are taken out of context and turned into sound bites in order to support positions he would not himself have taken. The most obvious example is how his most memorable line from the “I Have a Dream” speech about not judging people based on the color of their skin but the content of their character is used to justify attacks on affirmative action—a policy he definitely endorsed—or cited in a way to claim that the best path forward for racial justice is to somehow ignore race and become colorblind.
The white supremacist violence we witnessed in the Portland MAX train last summer; the shocking Nazi imagery flowing out of Charlottesville; the vile and degrading way our President talks about some human beings not being worthy to be our fellow citizens because of their origin in non-European nations—all that is proof that we cannot simply ignore the problems of racism now or imagine white supremacy is a thing of the past.
Last year, all across the country, marches and vigils were held to honor the victims of racist violence and to stand against the surge of white nationalist groups in the United States. People are still seeking guidance about how to think about the public and proud resurgence of this form of bigotry, especially since it echoes in the halls of our highest government offices.
Inevitably, the words and ideas of Dr. King are being invoked, especially his thoughts on the power of love in times of hate. One of his quotes, often bandied about, is this: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
But the hard question is what does it mean to love and not hate in the aftermath of Charlottesville? Does it mean it’s somehow wrong to feel angry or violated when people proudly brandish neo-Nazi symbols on their weapons and shields or chalk white supremacist sayings on the sidewalks of our Waterfront Park? Does it mean the loving response is to forgive the purveyors of hatred and violence like the young man who ran over protestors, killing Heather Heyer, in Charlottesville?
In the speeches in which King talked about love, he often spent time explaining what he meant; love has several meanings. In saying that supporters of racial justice had to have love in their hearts, he didn’t mean that they had to be continually positive and upbeat, or that they had to approach racists in friendship. That’s the kind of love we share with intimates or friends. King said the love that we ought to have in the struggle for justice is the kind that acknowledges all people, even the white supremacists, as human beings. And human beings are capable of making their own moral choices and being held responsible for their actions. We aren’t called upon to like or be friendly to those who are racists. It means we ought not to dehumanize or murder them as part of our fight for justice.
Someone asked me recently if, out of love, King wouldn’t have asked to sit down with a white supremacist and try to listen to their concerns and understand where they were coming from, in hopes of some kind of reconciliation and dialogue. I thought about this and realized that the answer was probably no. King never asked, for instance, to meet with Bull Connor, the rabidly racist police chief in Birmingham, Alabama who sent police dogs to attack protestors. He never called for public meetings with ordinary Black and white citizens to dialogue.
Instead, he called for marches, boycotts, and urged legislation that would halt business as usual in that city, deplete the pocketbooks of segregationist business owners, and to criminalize racist attacks and intimidation. He wrote in 1963: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is important also.”
This is not to say that fellowship and dialogue are not important, especially when friends approach one another to talk about their fears, hopes, and biases. Indeed, love, fellowship, and dialogue are all integral parts of the way of life that King called The Beloved Community. For King, the Beloved Community was not an image of a perfect, heavenly, paradise but a guiding ideal of what human beings could accomplish if they cared to bring out the best in each other. King believed that all civilization was the result, not of a competition and a survival of the fittest, but of the “mutually cooperative and voluntary venture of man to assume a semblance of responsibility for his brother.” The Beloved Community would be the future world of humanity if we nurtured those tendencies to care and to “life up every voice”:
“All this is simply to say that all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people cannot expect to live more than twenty or thirty years, no man can be totally healthy, even if he just got a clean bill of health from the finest clinic in America. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way the world is made.”
King wrote those inspiring words in 1961, even before the great victories of the Civil Rights Movement that seemed to indicate we as a people were getting closer to the Promised Land. But by December 1967, just a few months before he was killed, King struck a different tone. In his Christmas Sermon, he admitted that he had over the years witnessed the Dream he had spoken of in his famous speech in Washington DC turn into a nightmare. Four little innocent girls had been blown up in Birmingham; millions of Black men and women languished in poverty and unemployment; and thousands of young people were shipped out to die and to kill countless others in Vietnam. As Cornel West reminds us, on the day that King was assassinated in Memphis, he had a sermon in his coat pocket entitled “Why America May Go to Hell”
So toward the end of his life, King grew in awareness of the enormous obstacles that stood in the way of achieving the Beloved Community. But he did not fall into despair or get paralyzed by the vast pockets of hate around him. Instead, he renewed his activist efforts and called for a revolution of values that would utterly transform the United States.
The Beloved Community could not be built if the US continued its commitment to what he called the triplets of evil: materialism, racism, and militarism. The fight against white supremacy had to be tied to issues of poverty, economic inequality, lack of jobs, reducing our military and the number of nuclear weapons, curbing police brutality, and providing decent health care and education for everyone. These were all issues of concern for King; this is what he meant by love.
Corvallis is a special place with some very dedicated organizers and activists, people committed to living by King’s words. But if we are to take all of King seriously, not just the hopeful King, but the radical King–the King of 1968 who is the closest to us now–then I think its clear we have to think about many of the institutional obstacles that hinder Beloved Community here.
Yet, we ought to remember that King tied militarism not just to the actual military but also to the ways in which military ideals seep into our everyday lives and systems of power. Just last year, the Benton County sheriff acquired a surplus military armored vehicle. President Trump has said he wants to put more military hardware into the hands of local law enforcement departments. Last fall, we the citizens approved a bond measure to increase the capacity of the County Jail and the number of police in the streets. We worry about crime, drugs, and the growing presence of people living in the streets and we respond with a tank, more armed personnel, more beds in cells. Can we commit as a community not to ratchet up the military capacity of our police forces, not to increase our pipelines to the prison industrial complex?
A few years ago, Walidah Imarisha came on this stage to remind us about the way in which Oregon was founded as a white utopia, legally excluding African Americans from settling here. And we need to remember that our founding father, Joseph Avery, built his political career promoting the idea of Oregon statehood founded on slavery. Whether he was a white supremacist himself is beside the point; he advocated for slavery until it was politically inconvenient to do so. The Corvallis School District decided over a decade ago that his namesake was not something it wanted to honor; recently OSU decided that Joseph Avery was not someone that a public university honoring diversity and inclusion should revere with building names. Yet, we still have streets and a major public park bearing his name in our city. Moreover, our county bears the name of man who advocated for the forced removal of Native peoples in order to give their lands to white settlers.
So when the white supremacists walk in our community, they can know that for most of the history of this place, their ideals were considered normal and right, and that men who promoted their ideas are still remembered as pioneers and heroes. What would it mean to be a community that committed itself to revering civic heroes who struggled against the tide of dehumanization, and that consigned the champions of racism not necessarily to oblivion, but to the exhibits of a new museum downtown?
In this last public speech, King told his audience
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.
We all know that long life was not his to have. He was cut down the next day by a white supremacist. But in that talk he urged people not to give in to pessimism. He knew that the Promised Land could be reached but it would be through each of supporting one another, holding each other up, carrying one another.
In caring for each other like this, along the way we would eventually become the kind of people worthy of the final destination, we would make the road by walking it, our deeds invoking the Beloved Community:
“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”