The Santa-ization of MLK's Radical Legacy
“The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.”
– Martin Luther King’s final speech, I've Been to the Mountaintop
In the first episode of BrandX, Russell Brand talked about meeting the Dalai Lama. Why did we choose him as the subject for our first show? Because the Dalai Lama’s preaching of peace, anti-consumerism, spirituality and nonviolence is radical, a stark contrast to the message of war and consumption one usually hears on television.
In the writer’s room, as we were talking about who the Dalai Lama is, we hit upon a question that none of us could answer: who is the American Dalai Lama? And we realized, there isn’t one. The last great spiritual figure in American history was Martin Luther King Jr.
Today, though, King has been turned into a Santa Clause figure. There’s a holiday commemorating his life and works and his likeness appears in ads for Apple Computer, Alcatel, and McDonald’s. King’s legacy, if commercial interests had their way, would be the nonthreatening “Think Different” campaign, an encouragement to purchase luxury electronic goods made by exploited foreign workers.
Yet, for all of King’s talk of getting along – the stuff he’s known for now -- he was not at all about just going along with a system he saw as evil; he wasn’t about politely working within a system designed by and for those who profit from human suffering. And for that reason he was hated by the elites, labeled a communist by the likes of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and a potential security threat by good liberals like Robert Kennedy.
Rather than shy away from controversy, however, King embraced his status as a pariah for progressive change, coming out as an enemy of the American warfare state.
Speaking at a church in New York City in April 1967, King criticized American military intervention in Vietnam, proclaiming that he could no longer stand idly be as his government – headed by a pro-war Democrat – reigned hell upon the poor overseas. Though he had for years focused on preaching a message of peace as an answer to America’s domestic problems, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.” King decided he couldn’t keep quiet as millions of human beings being murdered in Vietnam, even if it meant speaking out against a president who had signed the Civil Rights Act. For the sake of those at home watching their government employ violence to solve its perceived problems, and thinking that perhaps violence could be the solution to problems of their own, and “for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”
Almost a year to the day later, King was silenced for good by an assassin’s bullet.
Martin Luther King Jr. was an American radical, a man who stood up to the ruling class on behalf of the impoverished, both at home and abroad. Unable to confront the moral force of his message, the powerful have instead chosen to ignore it, appropriating his image and stripping him of his radicalness. In Washington the whitewashing of King’s legacy is plain for all to see, the made in China monument constructed in his honor as white as most members of Congress.
But like other radicals, King’s image has been appropriated by the powerful, his inconvenient radicalism ignored, his message dumbed down to a few lines that would feel at home on a Hallmark card. According to the official history, King is something of a jolly American Santa Claus who, like, just wanted everyone to get along, man. George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike have claimed him as an inspiration, reducing him to the status of an honorary Founding Father, a guy who believed “all men are created equal,” in the words of The Decider, one who had faith in the “beliefs articulated in our founding documents.”
What our powerful elites leave out: That today, America doesn’t have an equivalent popular voice against state-sanctioned terror. Our preachers condemn sex and drugs, but can’t be bothered to say nary a bad word about incinerating women and children with Hellfire missiles. Our 21st century spiritual leaders hawk phones but couldn’t care less about peace, consumerism filling the void left by our society’s atrophied moral conscience.
That void cannot remain. A nation without a conscience, a nation that abides state-sanctioned murder from Yemen to Pakistan to Honduras so long as a new iPad is released every 9 months or so, is a nation without a soul. Instead of waiting around for a savior, though, we as a people need to acknowledge our collective power to shape the future for the better, our ability to create a world where militarism and corporate greed are supplanted by mutual aid and a commitment to community. The elites may have all the guns and money, but we have the numbers.
"For a time I was depressed,” Helen Keller, another American whose radicalism has been forgotten (she was a socialist, an antiwar marcher and a founder of the ACLU), remarked when speaking of her own awakening to the institutionalized injustice around her. “But little by little my confidence came back and I realized that the wonder is not that conditions are so bad, but that society has advanced so far in spite of them. And now I am in the fight to change things.”