By Harry C. Boyte
In a coincidence of history, President Obama took the oath of office on the Martin Luther King Holiday, January 21, 2013. He sounded a call for collective action, with his hand on Martin Luther King’s bible.
Like King a half century ago in his “I Have a Dream” speech, Obama employed a language of citizenship, declaring that all must work together as citizens to advance the founding creed of the nation and to meet challenges of today. Obama has immersed himself in study of the black church tradition of call and response, which King brilliantly embodied. And in the citizen response to Obama’s call, we can use lessons from the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King is rightly remembered this year as a dreamer. But to see King only as a dreamer is to miss his greatness.
Stretched out on the floor in a sleeping bag in my father’s hotel room, I heard King practice the speech in the early morning hours of August 28th. My father had just gone on staff of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the only white on the executive committee. Dad called me, hitch-hiking in California before college, and told me to come back. “We’ve planned a march to get the attention of the nation,” he said.
In “I Have a Dream,” King strikes a bold tone. “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights,” King said. King’s Dream speech was also a call to citizenship, to act with the welfare of the whole society in mind:
“In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
King lived what community organizers describe as the tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. This is hard to do. The strong tendency is to split the two. On the one hand we have our ideals and those who embody them. On the other there is the vicious, violent world and of course the evil doers who are seen as its agents.
King refused this Manichean division of the world. He rooted his dream in the soil of human fallibility. He was fully aware of the propensities toward pettiness, jealousy, meanness in everyone – including himself. It was his ability to dream coupled with his rootedness in the human condition with its full complexity which made Martin Luther King great.
This rootedness of King is often missing in today’s tributes. The current controversy over the King Memorial in Washington illustrates the pattern.
In 2011, the poet Maya Angelou told the Washington Post she was upset at the paraphrase of a quote on the Memorial. The quote, from a sermon King gave on March 4, 1968, read: “If you want to say that I was a drum major say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.” On the Memorial the inscription was shortened to read “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.”
Angelou said, “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He never would have said that of himself. He said, ‘you might say it.’ It minimizes the man. It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was.” After a wave of such criticisms, the Park Service agreed to remove the inscription.
I have high regard for Maya Angelou and her writing. But she was wrong about King.
The sermon wasn’t creating a hypothetical. King begins the sermon querying those who condemn James and John for their request, recounted in the 10th chapter of Mark, to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands. King says:
“Why would they make such a selfish request? Before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. There is deep down within all of us kind of a drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”
King continues, the problem is not the Drum Major Instinct. It’s that the follow up question, for what? is rarely asked. That’s the meaning of the quote which was taken off the King Memorial. King’s “for what” drew deeply from conversations with co-workers in the movement. For instance, Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington and long-time adviser to King, was indispensable to creating the platform for “I Have a Dream.” Rustin’s question was always how to move from the world as it is to the world as it should be, or, put differently, how to put power behind vision.
By the mid-sixties, Rustin had become alarmed about the growing tendency of young activists, both black and white, to substitute “posture and volume” for strategy. In 1965 in an article in Commentary, “From Protest to Politics,” he challenged this tendency and proposed an alternative. “The civil rights movement must evolve from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement—an evolution calling its very name into question,” he said. “It is now concerned not merely with removing the barriers to full opportunity but with achieving the fact of equality.”
Rustin argued that the movement for equality requires institutional transformation, not simply moral exhortation. I see the civic transformations of colleges and universities, promoted by the American Commonwealth Partnership in partnership with the White House and the Department of Education, as examples.
Similarly, King also often visited the Dorchester Center in Georgia, where he heard stories and drew inspiration from those being trained in SCLC’s Citizenship Education Program (CEP) to create citizenship schools. Septima Clark, an early teacher, developed CEP’s vision statement: “to broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship.” Such broadening involved change in identity from victim to agent of change, a story told vividly in the book by CEP director Dorothy Cotton, If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement. I worked for CEP as a college student.
King is remembered in his last years for his fiery criticism to the Vietnam War and poverty in America. But we need to recall that he was also a Drum Major – and co-worker — in the movement for equality and for broadening the scope of democracy.
His marching orders have never been more relevant.