This week, Americans across the country at least made a show of commemorating the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., the nation’s preeminent civic hero. For the most part, though, this year’s MLK Day, as with years past, was really an act of collective forgetting.
Amid our annual King Day celebrations, the more radical King — who spoke out against the Vietnam War, critiqued the profligacy of capitalism and warned black leaders about imitating the white establishment — rarely appears.
In a way, this tragedy was always baked into King’s legacy because if he was ever going to be remembered as he is now (i.e., with a national holiday in his honor, in commercials for trucks and computer goods, in innocuous TV soundbites and at public ceremonies), it was going to be on the terms of the very power structure whose authority, during his lifetime, he both leveraged and lambasted.
In his many campaigns for racial equality, King often appealed to the collective conscience of white America through the language of classical liberalism, a philosophical tradition developed in the 17th and 18th centuries that places the individual — unfettered by the strictures of race, gender, class and other potentially polarizing identities — at the center of society.
According to the late political theorist Sheldin Wolin, classical philosophers believed the universal individual liberated from the constraints of particular identity could be a useful tool for suppressing the inherited resentment related to ethnic, cultural, religious and political differences.
Those differences fueled incessant upheavals, such as civil war, during the 17th and 18th centuries that made life for most people during those times “poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” in the words of 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes.
Hobbes thought that, in order to achieve peace and harmony, we needed a way to allow the world’s various warring factions to forgive and forget, to let bygones be bygones, so that society “could start afresh without inherited resentments,” Wolin writes. “A necessary condition of social amnesia was, therefore, that men de-historicize themselves.”
Classical liberalism is laden in King’s often misremembered “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he lays out his vision for a nation that “will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,'” and where citizens “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
King, and the many, mostly unheralded, men and women who fought with him were wildly successful in helping African Americans win the rights historically denied them, particularly the right to vote. But the ideological terrain on which King and company were fighting was always rigged against blacks when it came to levelling the political and economic playing field for more than a privileged few.
King urged white America to live up to its creed of equality, but that creed, while useful for persuading the country to be less racist, was not without its problems, particularly considering its philosophical underpinnings and the particular identities of the white, property-owning (if not slave-owning) men who envisioned it.
As Wolin explains, the social contract — an “exchange in which individuals agree to obey political authority if authority will protect them” — forms the basis of the classical liberal ideal of equality. Hobbes conceives of the social contract as a “device to incorporate social amnesia into the foundation of society,” Wolin writes.
“The Hobbesian individual steps forward as the first of a long series of blank individuals who fake their nature by denying historically acquired and multiple identities,” Wolin explains. “Every contract theorist points to a person who is initially defined without reference to gender, family, local community, social class, religious commitment, or vocation.
“Twentieth-century writers are not much better. They may stipulate ‘veils of ignorance’ as a condition of contract, but in the presence of distinctions of color and gender, that stipulation strikes one as incoherent. What can it mean to say that for the moment I must forget that I am a person of color or a woman so that I may think about the basic conditions of a just society, when for me what matters is how that difference will be treated?” (Italics mine).
In exchange for entering into full citizenship, black Americans received “equality for remembrance, or rather a certain kind of equality — not equality as an ideal that is necessarily at war with power (because power presupposes inequality) but equality as a fiction that serves to legitimate power.”
There is a direct line of descent from this fictional inequality to the myth of colorblindness that liberals and conservatives alike use to dismantle the very values and policies that King fought and died for (read Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s opinions or Shelby Steele’s The Content of our Character to see how King’s classical liberal appeals are routinely weaponized in service to the gross materialism and selfishness he despised).
And even this fictional equality, this myth of colorblindness, is only ever available for blacks to leverage under certain conditions, as Hobbes stipulates. Again, in order to become a Hobbesian individual, political subjects have to agree to forget about the power imbalances and the injustices that inform their particularized identities and they have to agree to get over historic pains that may lead to inherited resentment and thus social instability.
The freedman had to forget that he was ever enslaved as whites, carefree and without irony, made monuments in memory of the country’s independence (in his 1852 address, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass made clear he was not prepared to do so).
In order to become president, Barack Obama had to publicly disavow those aspects of his non-white identity that were most radical, threatening and different to the dominant white culture, which nonetheless praised itself for electing a black president.
Toward the end of his life, King clashed with black leaders like Stokely Carmichael, the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who was not so willing to play by the rules that liberalism had created and who was even challenging its legitimacy with concepts like Black Power.
Black Power advocated for black economic and political self-determination and equality not by appealing to the conscience of whites in the self-effacing language of non-violent civil disobedience and not by asking the nation to live up to its founding creed, but by making demands in the aggressive language of class struggle and self-defense.
King feared that Carmichael and other young radicals like him were running headlong into a trap they would not be able to escape. They were flirting with Hobbes’ state of nature, where the struggle is largely waged not in the courts and at the polls, but in the un-redemptive, nihilistic fog of race war.
But later in his life King himself grew exhausted with the limits of liberalism, criticizing black leaders who “suffer from an aloofness and absence of faith in their people” (leaders who might, in Wolin’s words, suffer from Hobbesian individualism).
The “white establishment,” he wrote, “is skilled in flattering and cultivating emerging leaders. It presses its own image on them and finally, from imitation of manners, dress and style of living, a deeper strain of corruption develops. This kind of Negro leader acquires the white man’s contempt for the ordinary Negro.”
There is a way of out this apparent double-bind scenario — this choice of accommodation or annihilation, but you would have to imagine a rich past of black protest and emancipatory politics that society would rather we forget amid our remembrance of the aspects of King’s life and legacy that don’t threaten the established order.
As the scholar Gary Dorrien reminds us, King is part of a rich protest tradition called “the black social gospel” that dates back to 1884. Rooted in historical realities, the black social gospel includes Christian and socialist strains of thought that go beyond the abstractions of white enlightened philosophers who lived two and three centuries ago.
“The black social gospel arose during the trauma and abandonment of Reconstruction, resuming the struggle for black freedom in America,” Dorrien writes.
“Like the white social gospel and Progressive movements, it espoused principles of social justice, conceived the federal government as an indispensable guarantor of constitutional rights, struggled with industrialization and economic injustice, and grappled with the Great Migration. … The black social gospel affirmed the dignity, sacred personhood, creativity and moral agency of African Americans and responded to racial oppression.”
Unfortunately, you may never read about this gospel in any history textbook. But just because we’re not supposed to remember it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.