Friday, December 10, 2010

Review: MLK's Why We Can't Wait

I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.
Martin Luther King, Why We Can't Wait (1964)

This is part of an occasional series of EasyYolk guest posts. Matt Ankeny, the author of this review of Martin Luther King's Why We Can't Wait (1964), is a teacher and writer living in Southern Orange County. EY featured his unique faith journey a couple months ago here.

We all view MLK as a hero. He has his own holiday. He is the canonized frontman of the civil rights movement. And he is America’s Ghandi for nonviolence. His “I Have a Dream” speech echoes in our ears starting early in life. He’s plastered on classroom walls. We see him speaking on the steps of the Lincoln monument and think, “Yes, this is the Lincoln of our time.”

In high school, King is as much a part of our curricular surroundings as Shakespeare sonnets, integers, and the Civil War. He adopts an academic shrine. We learn of Rosa Parks and Malcolm X, but they’re mere diadems adorning King’s monolith. He takes on a superhuman stature in our history, a position that draws him fearfully close to idolization and consequently, perfection. His shroud of national reverence sits like a negligee, whitewashing his muscle. His sharp corners are rubbed clean; the point and jab of his tongue and pen are rounded dull.

At least Washington had his cherry tree, Jefferson slaves, Lincoln misbehaved children, and JFK Monroe. But King exists without blemish in our subconscious, and he’s dulled by this. Without need to question any part of his character, we assume we know him fully—we know he’s perfect, that he always did right. In our imagination, this cripples our curiosity, and he becomes no more than an untarnished statue, left for us to admire in completeness, but without an understanding of its parts. There’s nothing to compare King against, no low points of character to say he overcame. He comes to us in a perfect package, crisp suit, articulate Ph.D., and leaves with the reverence due a true martyr.

My issue is not with the squeaky-clean reputation he’s embalmed in—it is, from what I know, deserved. Rather, I struggle with my own lackluster desire to crack sacred King’s resin. We sometimes prefer to leave our heros untouched, unstudied, and undiscovered. And that’s exactly what I’d done.

Until opening King’s recapitulation of the Birmingham social uprising in Why We Can’t Wait, I’d left the minister alone in his eternal sleep. But my meager excavation efforts were not unrewarded. Digging past the reverential balm revealed a vibrant and pulsing King, poignantly relevant, convicting, and, without the usual cliche, inspiring.

King’s reflection is centered around his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which stands in the middle of WWCW as both an anchor and a pearl. To my mild credit, I had read “Letter” before, and was awed by King’s mixture of strength and creativity in prose. But, to my discredit, I left “Letter” alone, to collect dust on the shelf of my MLK shrine.

Revisiting the text, I was impressed with the immediacy and weight of this passage. King walks briskly between theology and philosophy, harkening great thinkers to his aid in a patient, poised prose. Aquinas, Buber, and Tillich appear rank-and-file marching for his verbal cause (94). His imagination is rife with analogies; his “boil” of civil injustices rings with perfect metaphoric pitch as he scratches to expose the sore to air and light (98). He dances with a matadors precision against bullish racism and inequality, saving his final thrust for his mortal turns of phrase. “I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends” (110). He drops the bull to its knees and twists the dagger. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is clearly the magnum opus of WWCW, but it does not stand alone.

In “The Sword That Heals,” King creates his backing for nonviolent doctrine. Explaining why the Negro adopted a nonviolent stance, he writes, “The Negro turned his back on force not only because he knew he could not win his freedom through physical force but also because he believed that through physical force he could lose his soul” (28). This “soul force” cripples the physical brutality of the oppressor while empowering the oppressed (21). Like a razor blade to the swelling eye of a boxer, the nonviolent revolution exposed the blood boiling under the surface, not to exacerbate the pain, but to return sight to the blinded nation.

Although King may, at times, seem unduly optimistic at the potential of his methodology (or its adoption), he does offer a balanced perspective of his mission. He’s cognizant of potential limitations. “No one can pretend that because a people may be oppressed, every individual member is virtuous and worthy.” “There are Negros who will never fight for freedom. There are Negros who will seek profit for themselves alone from the struggle” (41). But King is not alarmed. The force of the movement will not be slowed by a reluctant few.

The powerhouses of “Letter” and “Sword” are set in the context of “Bull Connor’s Birmingham.” It is grounding to have the theory of nonviolent revolution placed in a concrete space and time. King, never one to disconnect philosophy from action, ensures a balance between the scaffolding behind the construction and the actual laying of stones. In WWCW, we see both the pre-revolution context—in “Bull Connor’s Birmingham” and “New Day in Birmingham”—and the resulting conditions—in “Black and White Together” and “The Summer of Our Discontent.” This synchronizes with King’s own claim that “no revolution can take place without a methodology suited to the circumstances of the period” (27). He diligently provides both.

After rousing the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., I’m left slightly dissatisfied with myself. How, after many years of hearing his name, recognizing his face, voice, and even writing, could I know so little of the philosophy and backing behind his actions? How could I have mentioned him as a hero without any investigation of who my hero was? I had been lulled to sleep by the aura of King, incubated by the idea of him.

Why We Can’t Wait jolts King and the reader to life with electricity and severity. MLK is more wolf than sheep, and the declawed King of my past—our collective-consciousnesses past—has now, through Why We Can’t Wait, regained his edge. It is impossible, when confronting the true King, to come away unscathed. But, in what may be King’s final turn of phrase, we realize that it is through these given stripes that we will be free.

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