The 1967 MLK and the Politics of Transcendence

Mural of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Oakland.

I am not thinking about Donald Trump today. I am still hungover from MLK Day. I am still celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the 1967 King, listening to his speeches that year and reading his writings.

Like the 1967 King who said, “Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery. No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation, no Johnsonian civil rights bill can totally bring this kind of freedom.”

Like the 1967 King who said, “Yes, yes, we must stand up and say, ‘I’m black, but I’m black and beautiful.’ This, this self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him.”

Like the 1967 King who wrote: “When a people are mired in oppression, they realize deliverance only when they have accumulated the power to enforce change.”

Like the 1967 King who said, “This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Like the 1967 King who wrote, “Power is not the white man’s birthright; it will not be legislated for us and delivered in neat government packages.”

Like the 1967 King who said, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

It struck me that King rarely gave voice to subjective political identities, especially as he saw all those liberals and conservatives defending the Vietnam War in 1967, attacking Black power in 1967, and coming together to support the law and order of racism and exploitation.

By 1967, King’s moral power had transcended left and right, liberal and conservative—and through the radio of history, he is asking us to transcend those labels too as we stare down the Trump presidency.

He is asking us to see that the choices we offer people in our organizing against the politics of Trump should not be political titles. With poverty as normalized as inaccessible healthcare, with inequality quickly changing for the worse like the climate, with millions of migrants endlessly searching for safety like the families affected by gun violence, with racist and sexist and homophobic and elitist and nativist ideas as normal and comforting as perpetual war, with harmful pipelines being built underground and lines of communication being cut above-ground—our choices as a people are much more fundamental, much more eternal, much more universal than mere liberal or conservative or even radical.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking near the UN in 1967. Source: NY Daily News.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking near the UN in 1967. Source: NY Daily News.

There are lies and truth, and WE must be truth. There is war and peace, and WE must be peace. There is hierarchy and equality, and WE must be equality. There is exploitation and love, and WE must be love.

I am reminded of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, whose life of racial ideas I chronicle in Stamped from the Beginning. I am reminded that he boldly declared immediate emancipation in September 1829 when slavery was strengthening and expanding. Americans thought Garrison had lost his mind, just like Americans thought King had lost his mind when he came out against the Vietnam War in 1967.

But history tells a story of two Americans who were ahead of their times, two Americans willing to run through the forest fire of struggle to reach the glorious day of humane sisterhood and brotherhood.

We need to think past the forty-fifth president. Our despair cannot stifle progress in the quicksand of gradualism. We need to call for immediate equality. We need to call for an immediate end to all wars. We need to call for an immediate end to economic exploitation. We need to call for much more than actually seems unattainable today—and then work for the rest of our lives to reach that glorious day.

Trump can call us names on Twitter. The right can call us mere liberals or leftists or progressives or radicals. We can call ourselves that. But we need to follow King and transcend those political labels. We are fighters for truth, for peace, for equality, for love. We are struggling against liars, war hawks, bigots, and exploiters.

In 1967, King would proclaim his dream had turned into a nightmare. But even in the midst of the nightmare of witnessing the progression of racism after civil rights, King did not stop hoping for the glorious day. I don’t think anyone or anything would have extinguished King’s famous flame of hope for the glorious day. Not the alt-right’s president. Not his harmful policies coming down the lead pipes of his presidency. Not his sniper rhetoric against everything humane. Nothing. Because King understood himself as a fighter, as a change agent. And in order to sustain the fight to change anything, you have to philosophically believe change is possible.

Cynicism is the kryptonite of change.

We are losing this country not to conservatives, but to lies and wars and inequalities and exploitation. But the nation is not lost. It will never be lost, King tells us, so long as we continue our freedom fight for that glorious day.

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Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Best Seller. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

Comments on “The 1967 MLK and the Politics of Transcendence

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    Some moral values and principles, as well as some spiritual values and practices (e.g., self-examination and what the Stoics and others called ‘spiritual exercises’) can and do in fact transcend conventional political labels. And the idea that “WE must be truth,” etc. is an idea with profound pedigree within several religious traditions, the moral and political philosophy of Mohandas K. Gandhi (please see Raghavan Iyer’s nonpareil examination of same), canalized in Carl Boggs’ notion of “prefigurative politics” (which cannot and thus should not be reduced to an ‘ism’), central to the early anarchist critique of some forms of Marxism and socialism, and well-employed by Wini Breines in her book, Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962–1968: The Great Refusal (Rutgers University Press, 1989), and integral to the logic and praxis of many Black Panther Party “community programs.” However, I do think “political titles” and labels are unavoidable, as least in public discourse, and however constraining, misleading, or unduly polemicizing in effect. Why? Because such individual and group self-definitions and ascriptions remind us of others who came before us in struggle: their sufferings and joys, their victories and defeats, their courage and mistakes, what have you. They also identify the wellspring we continue to draw upon for examples, lessons, models, inspiration and so forth. The early Green movement here and in Europe often attempted to characterize itself as transcending the Left and Right and thereby lost natural allies in the struggle, because their politics seemed naive, unhistorical, holier than thou…. So I will proudly identify with Leftist (and some Liberal) history and politics, in my case with Marxist and anarchist thought and praxis, while lucidly aware that such politics does not exhaust my lifeworld or worldview (the former being the individualized articulation of the latter), nor should it be meant to characterize who we are, existentially speaking, as human beings, as persons. Even as we attempt to be love, to be solidarity, to be equality, we cannot forget that in some important respects these remain elusive, that they are ideals that help identify what, in the end are utopian (used here in a non-pejorative sense) aspirations, and thus serve as utopian models and pictures like those found in (e.g., the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century) and outside (the various utopian communes of religious provenance in U.S. history) Left traditions: ideals, pictures, and models that will continue to act as lodestars in our sincere but all-too-human endeavors to “be justice,” to “be love,” to live, so to speak, in a manner that incarnates the triune principles and values of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

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