Saturday, April 5, 2008

MLK's 'awesome radicalism'?

Rick Perlstein wants to "push back against the conservatives' excrescent Santa Clausification of Martin Luther King," so he quotes from his own forthcoming Nixon book, describing the 1968 crisis in Memphis brought about by the sanitation workers strke. Perlstein ends by saying:
I'm so, so proud to be a historian today, and to be able to do my own little part to wrench Martin Luther King's awesome radicalism out of the the blood-crusted arms of grubby clowns like David Brooks who dare try to embrace him.
(Via Memeorandum.) Being no great admirer of Brooks, the prophet of "National Greatness," far be it from me to leap to his defense, but I think Perlstein's criticism of Brooks highlights the inherent tension over MLK's historic legacy.

If America is to celebrate MLK as a universal hero, the celebration will inevitably revolve around King's 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech, and its vision of a color-blind America. Since liberals today are advocates of racial quotas and identity politics, then MLK of 1963 is hard to reconcile with the current liberal agenda.

On the other hand, in the context of his own time, King was an extremely controversial figure, widely suspected of communist sympathies. It was not until 1963, under pressure from the Kennedy administration, that MLK purged his staff of Communist Party members, including Jack O'Dell, who was identified as the fifth-ranking member of CPUSA.

Furthermore, Perlstein is correct in saying that the MLK of 1968 represented a "radicalism" that most conservative would not embrace. After all, the Memphis sanitation workers strike was a labor dispute involving municipal employees (the kind of stuff AFSCME does today) and as such was characterized by the sort of leftistclass-warfare rhetoric one might expect in such a situation.

MLK's legacy is thus a complex thing, and Perlstein's complaint raises an obvious question: If conservatives who "dare to try to embrace" King without endorsing King's "radicalism" are to be excoriated as "grubby clowns" engaged in "Santa Clausification," then why is John McCain apologizing for voting against the federal MLK holiday?

(BTW, in the book excerpts Perlstein quotes, he doesn't seem to put much emphasis on the fact that Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was president in 1968, was a liberal Democrat. Just thought I'd point that out. Anti-war protesters used to chant: "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?")

UPDATE: Hillary is moved to tears:
"Like many of you here who are of a certain age, I will never forget where I was when I heard Dr. King had been killed. I was a junior in college and I remember hearing about it and just feeling such despair,” Clinton said, pausing, her voice quivering. “I walked into my dorm room and took my book bag and hurled it across the room. It felt like everything had been shattered, like we would never be able to put the pieces together again."
She threw a bookbag! What "awesome radicalism"!

I was only a third-grader in April 1968, so I don't know if I was one of those "of a certain age" that Hillary meant. I remember seeing the news on TV that afternoon, then going outside to tell a neighbor kid, who replied by using a crude slur to refer to King and saying it was "about time" somebody shot him.

The neighbor kid's reaction shocked me then, and jt still shocks me to remember. My parents were reasonably liberal, considering the time and place -- this was Douglas County, Ga., in the 1960s -- but I don't imagine they were big fans of "awesome radicalism." However, my parents never tolerated the use of racial slurs; such language was considered low-class and uncouth.

After hearing the neighbor say what he said, I realized that he must have heard that kind of talk from his parents. It was shocking, as I said.

UPDATE II: Donald Douglas notes that the Left has used the 40th anniversary of King's assassination to portray America as "as an unmitigated evil, an irredeemable enormity, the greatest stain on human progress in world history."

Douglas also points out that Perlstein is a journalist, not an "academic historian," but I certainly don't hold think that Perlstein suffers by that distinction. Some of the greatest historians of the 20th century -- including William Shirer, Bruce Catton and Cornelius Ryan --were journalists and not academics. In my experience, academic historians are good researchers, but bad writers. There is a tendency of academic historians to get bogged down in details or distracted by historical "themes."

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