The continuing 'danger' of King
By Derrick Z. Jackson | November 25, 2006
Second of two parts
PALO ALTO, Calif.
CLAYBORNE CARSON said that one of the most profound things in the early notes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is how they foreshadow the last years of King.
"Most people think King grew into his opposition to the Vietnam War, grew into global issues, grew, so to speak, beyond race into speaking about other things," said Carson, founding director of the King Papers Project at Stanford University. The notes for King's early sermons, discovered in the last decade, will soon be published in the sixth volume of the papers.
"He was a person struggling to be understood, yet was so boxed in by his public image and public expectations . . . What the writings make abundantly clear was that now we can see that the King of 1968 was finally saying what he believed in 1948."
Carson said that the early writings make ironic the criticism King took for his anti-Vietnam speeches from civil rights leaders fearful of losing the support of the Johnson administration on domestic issues. "When you add it up," Carson said, "it's as if King is saying, 'You guys haven't been listening to me.' "
Reading a 1953 sermon called "The False God of Nationalism," one can guess what King might think about our unilateral invasion of Iraq, walls along the Mexican border, and the politics of fear after 9/11.
"The watchword of this new religion is 'My country, right or wrong,' " King wrote. ". . . In Germany, it was preached by Hitler. In Italy, it was preached by Mussolini. And in America it is being preached by the McCarthy s and the Jenners, the advocators of white supremacy, and the America first movements."
In a 1949 sermon called "Civilization's Greatest Need," King wrote,
"Our material and intellectual advances have outrun our moral progress." When one thinks of last week's stampede, shooting, and stealing over release of the latest PlayStation, King has a point. "I tell you, it is not enough to have the power of concentration," he wrote, "but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate."
Carson said this was the beginning of a King who was unorthodox for simultaneously making white Americans uncomfortable on segregation, other African-Americans leaders uncomfortable with his speaking out beyond the realm of civil rights movement, and the government uncomfortable not just on racism, but on class. He said that King, like Gandhi in India, was talking against colonialism and empire building.
Carson, who travels around the world to talk about the King papers, said the continued focus on King within the United States as only a "black leader" has resulted in him being better understood outside the United States than within.
"Even today you can see how dangerous King still is," Carson said in an interview after he talked last week with the Trotter Group of African-American newspaper columnists. "In the schools, are they going to talk about the Martin Luther King who was profoundly disturbed by economic injustice? That's perhaps too controversial. They'd rather talk about
: 'We once had these problems. The problem was called race, and he solved the problem.' That's the simplistic lesson. The moment you have a real King to teach, it'll become very controversial. As long as you have an innocuous King to teach, nobody cares."
As an example, he noted the reaction to some of his grant proposals for a King curriculum. "I was told quite explicitly, 'Do not call your curriculum 'liberation curriculum.' Do not use terminology like 'freedom movement.' You can use 'civil rights movement.' "
"That's just as hideous as when I'm in China and I'm told, 'Oh, you can say King was for civil rights, but don't say King was for 'human rights,' because that would be embarrassing to the government.' "
Carson speculates that if King were alive today, he might continue to be embarrassing to an America where many Christian groups scapegoat homosexuals, limit women's right to an abortion, or espouse general superiority over other religious groups. He said one of King's great strengths, evident in his early writings, was the ability to express his faith in a way that did not exclude others. "He had the humility to accept the notion that a billion believers can't be all wrong or all right," Carson said.
As an example of where the early writings led, Carson pointed to a 1965 column in Ebony magazine. It was titled "The Un-Christian Christian."
King railed against the "silence," "apathy," and "callousness" of congregations that sat out the civil rights movement. "How can Christians be so blind?" he asked. Carson said "I think King might have a thing or two to say," about "what passes today for Christian enlightenment."