Perhaps the fundamental difficulty of “remembering” a figure like Dr. King is the challenge of both cutting through and understanding the mythos around him. This mythos has only grown over the past fifty years, accompanied in equal parts by insightful reflections and confused, sometimes bizarre, misunderstandings. (Because examples of the latter are both easy to find and peripheral to my central point here, I will refrain from further disseminating them in this piece).
That difficulty is further compounded, I believe, by the fact that his legend has come to be marked by what I want to call a kind of accretion of certainty. Which is to say that, despite the many and varied versions of King that we encounter in school and in the news, everyone in the United States claims to “know,” to “understand” King. But this general tone, the language of aggressive certainty that characterizes popular discourse around him, the claim to know King, itself masks another problem. I want to argue, in other words, that the ironclad certainty with which accounts and interpretations of King’s life, thought, and action are given itself evinces a complimentary but different sort of misunderstanding with regard to that life, thought, and action.
King was many things, and along with the public face of his work as an activist and minister, he was also very much a philosopher and theologian. His education certainly speaks to this, as do his written works and speeches. The latter are deeply marked by a consistent and abiding critical engagement with the thinkers and ideas that challenged him throughout his life, from Plato and Gandhi, to DuBois and Niehbur. This is to say, he was someone who not only embraced difficult political challenges and the seemingly intractable problem of racial and economic injustice in the United States, but that he did so, and indeed could only do so, with the same critical spirit with which he engaged the figures and ideas that shaped him. And it is for this reason what I want to suggest is that we not only look to King for answers, as we tend to do, but that we look to him for questions as well. In other words, that we should not take the questions he poses as somehow incidental, but rather integral to the answers he gives; that we not simply think “of” or “about” King, but to continue to think with him.
…what I want to suggest is that we not only look to King for answers, as we tend to do, but that we look to him for questions as well.
In reading King’s writings, his speeches, and even studying his actions, such questions—his own, and questions that we might ask of him—proliferate quickly. In returning to his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” for perhaps the most famous example, we can ask just what King means when he speaks of the “self purification” necessary for direct action, and how exactly his four-fold breakdown of direct action fits together. We can ask, and indeed must ask—just as he himself asked of the Indian independence struggle—how the vision he provides for nonviolent protest can be replicated by different people, in different times and places. Indeed, we can ask what resources and models he himself provides for that work of re-situation and reinterpretation. Or, when he notes in his 1964 address at Wesleyan University that the “moral arc of the universe…bends toward justice” and excoriates the moderate white addressees of the “Letter” for claiming that change somehow occurs on its own without the difficult, intentional work of engaged human beings, we may ask not of him but with him how we should understand the role of time and history in bringing about justice. If, returning again to the “Letter,” “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and if injustice is so clearly to be found everywhere, how might we decide where, when, and how to direct our efforts? How do we, and how can we, discern the presence of forms of “negative peace,” what he calls “the absence of tension,” when it can be so easily overlooked, precisely because it is characterized by the absence of the kinds of positive, creative, tension that he describes? Especially when that absence, that “negative peace,” is characterized by its powerful ability to blind us to the struggles of others? What, after all, is the difference between a just and an unjust law, and how do we discern that difference?
These are just some possible examples, questions that have arisen for me in reading King. Some have also been raised by the insightful students with whom I’ve had the privilege of discussing his life, legacy, and thought; some have been posed to me by my own teachers and mentors. King is and will certainly remain someone who we may look to as a model for concrete actions, for the steps he ultimately chose to take—that is, for the answers that he provided to very difficult and at times seemingly intractable questions. However, and to be clear, my point here is not so facile as to say something like, “we should engage King critically” or that we should question him, his life, his decisions, and so on; while true, these points are obvious enough. We can, and certainly should, read King’s writings and speeches, study his actions, and even his mistakes and failings, and learn from them. We can and certainly should look to King for answers. And we should do so with the rigor, and indeed the courage, that he himself approached the difficult problem of justice throughout his life. We should also continue to combat the proliferation of inaccurate, partial, readings of King, especially those that misrepresent, for example his commitments to economic justice, his anti-war and anti-imperial views, or which confuse militant nonviolence for a “moderate” politics of tepid decorum. (Regarding the latter, others have provided far more robust answers to these questions than I can here; see, for example, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s contributions to this recent CNN roundtable on King’s legacy; or the historian Thomas Sugrue’s 2016 piece on “Restoring King” for just two recent exemplary treatments).
All this is to say that both this corrective interpretive work and that of understanding and drawing inspiration from King’s answers (whether in the form of words or actions) in fact compliment, rather than contrast, my point here. I want to simply suggest that by also looking to him for both the questions which motivated him and those which his life and work continue to raise for us, we in fact honor King in ways that are that much more inaccessible to the naïve “certainty” of many popular representations. That discourse, in its easy yet aggressive confidence, presents us with a purely historical King, one whose actions have already been taken, whose questions have already been answered, a figure who has been ossified as he has been mythologized. Conversely however, to approach King as someone who poses and raises questions, who continues to challenge us—and to challenge us to challenge ourselves—is not simply a way to publically honor his legacy or memory, but to quite literally keep it, through the critical spirit that drove it, very much alive.