To coincide with the Martin Luther King, Jr holiday, it seems appropriate to prod a little bit into what we’re supposed to be “celebrating” on Monday and why.  This isn’t about being disrespectful of Dr King, his beliefs or his accomplishments.  Surely Dr King was one of the most inspiring, articulate, and even poetic public figures of the Twentieth Century.  But I believe we’d all be better served by taking a moment to try un-raveling some of the falsehoods that are perpetuated in the name of great change and liberation.  As well, who those falsehoods serve and why. 

For starters, our popular American telling of the MLK myth usually begins with him becoming the “leader” of a new anti-segregation, pro-civil rights and equality movement after Rosa Parks’ historic refusal to change seats on the bus.  But Ms. Parks didn’t just randomly refuse to sit at the back of the bus, she had been an activist for the local NAACP for a dozen years before, and was acting in a very calculated way as part of an in-depth, long-term campaign[1].  A fact which doesn’t in itself say anything about Dr King, but which is nonetheless a piece of this myth to unravel.  The popular mis-understanding of how Rosa Parks came to be in the position she was in serves to reinforce our belief in the power of the individual at the expense of the larger community, and as well avoids that we may learn anything about the power of organizing collectively against common foes, such as racism, patriarchy, or class.  This provides us with our first insight into who exactly gains from the perpetuation of a (false) cultural mythology: those in power.

 Another very important aspect of the histories we are told in regards to social and political change is that of the tremendous power of non-violence.  The victories of the civil rights movement are unfairly attributed almost entirely to King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  That’s why we get a day off from work and school: to pay homage to the reforms won through the “democratic” process.  Yet King did not exist in a vacuum.  Alongside the nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns existed the revolutionary doctrine of Malcolm X, who’s notoriety and influence was explicitly violent and generally garners a pittance of the attention in our telling of history[2].  Even more-so, the arrival of the Black Panther Party, which saw armed black nationalists onto the streets of American cities, brought the State face-to-face with the actuality of an armed, popular resistance within its borders.  And it wasn’t only the State who was disheartened by such a threat to the status quo: all forces of privilege (whites, men, middle and upper classes, etc) had a stake in an easy solution to these “problems”.  And so the pathology of non-violence enters our larger consciousness. 

A further exploration into the altering of history that can occur under similar circumstances would be to take the case of Ghandi.  There is no need to knock the tremendous commitment and personal suffering undertaken by Ghandi and his followers through hunger strikes and refusing to defend themselves against the attacks of imperial Britain.  But lets not see Ghandi’s campaign and India’s “independence” as happening in a vacuum either: the fact is that Britain abandoned India much in the same way and around the same time as it was abandoning many of it’s Imperial territories.  That Ghandi was doing what he was doing certainly helped convince the British that it was time to leave, but lets not pretend that the Crown would have given up so easily had these events happened on British soil (just look at “the Troubles” in Ireland).  Even more tellingly, what is it that Ghandi “won” for “the people” of India?  Today, India is one of the most environmentally devastated and socially repressive States in the world, with massive inequality in the distribution of what wealth there is and the unimaginably repressive caste system[3].  If that is the revolutionary “success” of such campaigns, I suggest we reconsider.

I’m not saying that non-violence is a pathology in itself.  Indeed, if the only true revolution is the final one, which seeks the liberation of all people from all oppressions, than it is instrumental that our objectives be emancipatory for all.  This includes a respect for all individuals that does not seek a violent retribution.  But the tactic of non-violent means within the revolution; the dogma of legitimate and illegitimate ways in which we confront the State as we seek our freedom, is problematic.  There is no purpose served, except that of the State itself, by making a God out of pacifism.  

In the end, the adoption of non-violent tactics as the only socially legitimate way in which to confront our oppressors serves no purpose but to further legitimize the State and its interests.  By declaring ourselves pacifists, we submit that the only justifiable violence is in fact the violence of the State, which is carried out in countless ways in order to control various elements throughout society (and in fact, the world).  This, in turn, provides the forces of our oppression with a justification for their actions.

While it’s fairly easy, and perhaps a bit dishonest, for me, a white, (almost) middle class male Westerner, to pontificate on the glorification of a black civil rights leader from a generation ago, that’s not really the point.  We’re all, especially those of us most burdened by history’s oppressions, free to own or create hero’s and leaders who we draw inspiration from.  I am not arguing against a day of celebration and reflection on the principles, inspiration, and achievements of Dr King.  But we would certainly do well to better understand the contexts of what Dr King or any “hero” existed within.  And we should be especially curious when we encounter the State itself sanctioning a holiday in honor of those who fought against it and its policies.

These critiqes are not new.  They’re written about elsewhere, such as Peter Geldorloos’ How Nonviolence Protects the State and On the Question of Violence and Non-Violence by David Van Duesen.  Better understanding the social and political contexts of our histories enhances our historical understanding of our current social and political constructs.  As we develop these understandings, we develop our capacity to understand the plight of our human condition, and just maybe we develop a better understanding on how, and why, to bring about meaningful change.