Sorry for the late post today. Them’s the breaks when one leaves their computer at home these days. On the bright side, I got more compliments on my tie today than normal. It’s not hard to see why—it’s a beautiful Louis Walton handsewn three-fold in a large scale repp stripe, courtesy of the man himself.
As we pause today to reflect on the life and legacy of freedom fighter Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I am reminded of a line from a 1965 speech he gave in Hollywood, CA. In it, among other things, King uttered the now oft-quoted line that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In February of 1965 when King gave the speech, the Voting Rights Act had been passed just months earlier, the Civil Rights Act would not be pushed through the legislature for another half year, and the movement was clearly being cleaved by those seeking change faster than the Feds and white Americans working through a crisis of conscience could bring it about. SNCC was becoming radicalized, rebellions were on the rise in cities across the U.S., and Malcolm X had been assassinated less than a week prior. Non-violence and liberalism seemed to have nearly exhausted their limits in securing freedom and justice for blacks in the U.S.
Though King did not necessarily become radicalized in quite the same way, or to the same degree as other leaders in the movement (e.g., Stokely Carmichael—>Kwame Ture, Leroi Jones—>Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and the other early Black Panthers, etc.), by the end of his tragically shortened life I believe he was no longer content with the inevitability of the moral universe’s arc. Instead, King sought to accelerate that arc through an enlarged vision of the freedom struggle, not only in the U.S., but in the world. Though the question of American racism remained at the heart, in many ways, of King’s analyses of global crises, he explicitly saw the links between American racism, global poverty (which included the U.S.), and a racialized militarism (especially in Vietnam, but in postcolonial/decolonizing Africa and the Arab World as well).
His last speeches were shot through with pointed analyses of the intersecting nature of these crises, and I often wonder what would have become of the freedom struggle in the U.S. if things had gone differently on that April day in Memphis. Though I don’t want to invest too much in the power of an individual to create social change (it is always a collective act), I can’t help but imagine—especially today—that perhaps the still-linked crises of global war and poverty would not be as intractable as they appear now had he lived out his natural life.
Remember, King’s struggle was for a fully realized American democracy and human freedom globally. That’s an unfinished struggle. A day out of the year consecrated for reflecting upon King’s legacy is a beautiful fact, but also an opportunity to eschew the easy narrative that his life somehow bookends the freedom struggle in the U.S., or that the continuing crises around racial/ethnic/sectarian violence across the world have little to do with ‘us’ here in the U.S. One has only to open their eyes to see that this is not true.