BY GREGORY BRUCE SMITH
We celebrate Martin Luther King as an American icon, and rightly so. But why is he that icon? For an answer we can turn briefly to King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.
Arrested with others for resisting an unjust law, King sent his famous letter primarily to white clergy in the South who had chided him for being a provocateur. He cites St. Augustine: “[A]n unjust law is no law at all.” That is because there is a higher law than the ephemeral laws enacted by human beings. King alternately calls those laws “natural laws,” “rational laws,” or “Divine laws.” He cites not only Augustine, but also Paul, Aquinas and various Christian theologians, as well as repeatedly referencing Socrates and other, later Western philosophers. King appeals to the twin wellsprings of Western Civilization, Socratic rationalism and Scriptural teachings, especially the Christian variant focused on love and redemption. He appeals to what is arguably the central notion of Western Civilization, natural right or natural law.
King repeatedly appeals as well to the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which he clearly believes are manifestations of those natural law premises. King does not criticize American or Western civilization for its principles; his criticisms center on the failure to live up to those principles. He stands up for the American dream, the Judeo-Christian heritage, the Founding Fathers, the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. King asserts openly and proudly: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are by nature created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” All men are sovereign individuals, children of God, with equal rights according to nature. It was the failure to treat everyone as an equal individual that was at the heart of King’s Civil Rights campaign.
King borrows a thought from the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr that “groups are more immoral than individuals.” In that vein, he cautions especially his Black followers not to descend into hatred based on dismissing all white Americans as evil or through repudiating Christianity or America itself. He especially cautions against what he sees as the danger of Black nationalism. He specifically cites Brown v Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that “separate is never equal.” He further cautions his followers not to lose faith in America, but to be the agents that call all Americans back to their own principles. King’s faith is a faith in the sovereignty of rational individuals as God’s children. It was by treating all Blacks as members of a group that the White segregationists had been able to demonize them individually.
King makes clear that to confront individuals as group members is to open the door to division and hate. King counsels Christian love and its redemptive value. It leads to the core premises of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. His dream is that Americans will be brought to live up to their principles; that a day will come when no one is judged by the color of their skin but only by the content of their individual character, and that the end for everyone should be an American brotherhood of individuals. That is the American Dream at its core, more even than the materialist aspects of home ownership, economic independence, consumerist success and so on.
And hence while we must in Socratic fashion chide and question individuals who are unjust, we must avoid “the cup of bitterness and hatred” that comes from distrusting all of the members of any group. Talking specifically to both Blacks and Whites, King echoes a sentiment shared with Frederick Douglas, that our destinies are now tied together forever. As Black and White, we will succeed or fail together.
There is a stirring idealism in King’s vision. There is also a sound and prudent realism. King is skeptical of the notion of inevitable progress: that notion numbs the moral and intellectual faculties of man. King’s premise is that “time is neutral.” Human beings, if they wish to come closer to their principles, must wade in and argue and work for them. Individuals must rationally question contemporary orthodoxies as did Socrates and be willing to stand up to entrenched power as did the early Christians. The higher law does not actualize itself without rational understanding and moral commitment.
Unfortunately King’s dream is being betrayed in our time. The issues King confronted are now filtered through various fashionable ideological mantras that might make tolerant liberals believe they primarily offer a basis for hiring more women, blacks and gays. But the captains of the new approach to race have a clear set of philosophical premises that are at odds with those of King. Far from enthroning the core premises of Western Civilization, the new approach would jettison the entire Western tradition as well as its American offshoot. Christianity is not only rejected, but seen as one of roots of all evil. Reason is presented as the other root of evil; it is also rejected as a great miscreant that enthrones only domination. A fecund irrationalism is enthroned instead as the basis of health and justice: there are now no common truths to which sovereign individuals of any race, class or gender can ascend. There is no basis for either individualism or shared brotherhood.
On the basis of this new understanding, individual transcendence is rendered impossible; immersion in a group becomes an imperative. Liberal education is no longer seen as a Socratic emancipation from myth and error; it becomes instead an exercise in the immersion in multiple impermeable “narratives,” each equal in principle and immune from rational criticism. Left in the wake is only, for example, White or Black reason; except one must bracket the word reason. And then the ultimate insult to the principles of Martin Luther King, our postmodernist permutations of “race, class and gender” also come loaded with new permutations of original sin now loaded on a different race. The only yield from this notion will be new permutations of hate and division.
Denied the possibility to be equal, rational individuals, we are forced to be members of mutually suspicious groups. On these terms hate will always trump love and brotherhood. And on these terms both Ferguson and the assassination of New York City policemen become predictable. The battle for the future of King’s legacy hangs in the balance.