Wednesday, January 19, 2005


Well, it wasn't my intended topic but it sure is an interesting one...The whole notion of co-opting a dead person to validate a contemporary issue, organization, or political platform...
Though Coretta Scott King had already 'lit a torch' in March 2004( ) and said her late husband Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been a proponent of gay and lesbian rights, just recently daughter Berniece King 'lit a torch' at the King Center to express her certainty that her father would have been against gay marriage as a violation of Christian principles.

I think it's a bit wacky for a group of black people to have a torch lighting ceremony 'against' anything. The whole image is too surreal for me. After decades of terrorism against African Americans (and other ethnic groups) literally by fire and rope, it is sickening that any group of African Americans would go out and light a flame against anyone. But it is certainly their right.
But while the fact that Berniece King called the man I know from history books "Daddy" might seem to give her a certain credibility, I'll have to side with Coretta on this one --especially since she called the man her husband and had an adult relationship with him. Berniece's hearfelt religious beliefs notwithstanding, it is difficult for me to reconcile the image she presents with the public intellectual that Martin Luther King, Jr. was. Her position causes me to question how familiar she is with her father's work and writings at all. Not because I disagree with her--though I do--but because even a passing familiarity with her father's political activities and writings would belie her position.

King positioned himself as a radical--though he was not always as much in his leadership, and I find it wholly incredible that he would take a political stand proscribing the rights of any social group notwithstanding his own religious beliefs. I have no idea whether homosexuality was problematic for King's Christianity, but given his own sexual shortcomings, I'd like to believe he'd be at least tolerant, if not forgiving of others. I don't mean that as an ad hominem attack, but as a relevant observation of aspects of King's character that might have influenced his opinions of other individuals' sexual preferences and the consequent political position he might have developed vis a vis those individuals' social rights.

I have no confidence that King would have taken a public stand for gay rights at all. Though Coretta Scott King suggests her late husband would have supported gays and lesbians, I'm not as sure he would have joined them publicly. Optimistically, one might hope he would have evolved, but King certainly did little publicly to prevent the ostracization of Bayard Rustin from the civil rights organizations and efforts he deserved credit. King's definition of what fell within the boundaries of the civil rights movement seemed to expand as his definition of what was of relevance to African Americans grew more nuanced and complex. That would seem to bolster Coretta Scott King's view as well, given that African Americans have diverse sexual orientations and religious beliefs in addition to their complexly shared ethnic identification. Berniece King and others depend on defining gay and black as mutually exclusive, but that formulation just does not compute.

Which brings me back to the underlying problem with all this torch-lighting. Besides being her father's daughter, Berniece King really has no more credibility or authority on Christian issues or African American social justice than her mother has on gay rights. At the end of day, the only reason either of these women have any platform is because of their relationships with Martin Luther King, Jr. Neither has led political organizations nor produced their own intellectual platforms. I observe that not to demean them personally. But the truth is these women are only as useful as their ability to invoke the image of Dr. King. For over a generation, pundits have fretted about the void of black leadership, even as they jockeyed for the very position. Apparently, since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. black folks have been adrift in the wilderness, leaderless and lost.

The problems I have with this image are myriad. First, even during his lifetime King hardly enjoyed a mandate of African American support. After his decisions to combat poverty and oppose the Vietnam War, King was not exactly embraced by his peers. Similar to the mythologizing of Malcolm X, who was even more of a fringe figure during his lifetime, contemporary images of King would lead one to believe he was like a rock star enjoying public approval and adoration wherever he went. In fact, King struggled to keep even the support of his own organization's constituency and many African Americans were indifferent to his efforts. Even King was not the leader we make him out to be.

Which leads to the second problem...why do black people need a leader at all? No disrepect to Coretta or Berniece, but I don't need either of them to represent my viewpoint. Part of the problem of charismatic leadership is that it seems to suggest that the constituency represented has neither the responsibility nor ability to speak for itself. Especially in the United States, the chagrin over the lack of African American leadership is consternation over the ability to control what the group thinks or will do politically. For the Democratic party, for example, if the African American vote cannot be delivered by a leader perhaps someone will actually have to do the work of creating a platform that is attractive to African Americans collectively. For the Republican party, if the leadership is not delivering the African American vote to the other party as a bloc, perhaps egregious moves like kicking off Reagan's first Presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi will have to be foregone for more subtle moves like having Bush ignore the NAACP and Congressional Black Caucus...But I digress. My point is that some are desperate to hold on to the model of charismatic black leadership, it is their cache. But Ella Baker warned as far back as the civil rights movement that such a strategy was inherently dangerous for African Americans and bound for failure.

My hope is that Berniece King will find better uses for her torch and Bible than condemning others, that image was as frightening in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as it was when the KKK invoked it. She can do much better. I also hope that she and other members of her family will stop speculating upon the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. He also deserves much better. He left a very articulate body of work and does not need them to interpret his legacy. What would be much more interesting is if they would create legacies of their own based on their own works and contributions. In the meantime, I will think and speak for myself and don't really need a leader, dead or alive, to vouch for me.

Edited on 1/20/05

1 comment:

Grizally said...

Your second last sentence says it all for me. Riding someone elses coat tails, (one who can't object to your interpretation), is something that needs to be ignored.