The Neutering of Saints
Belated Thoughts on Martin Luther King Day
In August of 1619, a shipappeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.
So begins the webpage of the 1619 Project, an “ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
I’ve been following with great appreciation the1619 Project since its beginning, and especially its creator and inspiration, New York Times Magazine Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Nikole Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones describes her work as “forcing us to confront our hypocrisy, forcing us to confront the truth that we would rather ignore.” And she doe just that in her introductory essay for the 1619 Project, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.”
Two weeks ago on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 17, Hannah-Jones was invited by the Union League Club of Chicago to commemorate the life of the civil rights leader. And the following are excerpts from her speech to the predominantly white, well-heeled, professional audience:
It was in the year 1619 that the first BLACK slave was brought to the shores of this nation. They were brought here from the soils of Africa and unlike the Pilgrim fathers who landed here at Plymouth a year later, they were brought here against their will…
For more than 200 years Africa was raped and plundered, a native kingdom disorganized, the people and rulers demoralized and throughout slavery the BLACK slaves were treated in a very inhuman form...
White Americans must recognize that justice for BLACK people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society...The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and racism... The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
The crowning achievement in hypocrisy must go to those staunch Republicans and Democrats of the Midwest and West who were given land by our government when they came here as immigrants from Europe. They were given Education through the land grant colleges.
These are the same people that now say to BLACK people, whose ancestors were brought to this country in chains and who were emancipated in 1863 without being given land to cultivate or bread to eat; that they must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. What they truly advocate is Socialism for the rich and Capitalism for the poor…. We know full well that Racism is still that hound of hell which dogs the tracks of our civilization.
Ever since the birth of our nation, White America has had a Schizophrenic personality on the issue of race, she has been torn between selves. A self in which she proudly professes the great principle of democracy and a self in which she madly practices the antithesis of democracy.
The fact is, there has never been a single, solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans to genuine equality for BLACK people.
The step backwards has a new name today, it is called the white backlash, but the white backlash is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities, and ambivalences that have always been there.
The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation.
Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance … with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that BLACK AMERICANS HAVE come far enough.
[F]or the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country, even today, is freedom and equality and that racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists.
If America does not respond creatively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say, that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men. Why do white people seem to find it so difficult to understand that the BLACK people are sick and tired of having reluctantly parceled out to them those rights and privileges which all others receive upon birth or entry in America?
I never cease to wonder at the amazing presumption of much of white society, assuming that they have the right to bargain with the BLACK for their freedom.
As she spoke, according to Fr. Michael Pfleger, Pastor of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina in Chicago who gave the invocation at the program, the audience was visibly, cringingly uncomfortable – how dare she speak this way to those “enlightened” enough to have invited her. Imagine their surprise, then, when two days later, on January 19, she released a series of tweets saying that the first part of her speech (the excerpts above) were actually from Martin Luther King, Jr. himself (with the one exception that she substituted the word “BLACK” for “Negro” to not give away what she was doing), that she had scrapped her original speech when she learned that there were criticisms of her being invited to speak on behalf of King, that she was a “discredited activist, … unworthy of such association with King.”
Her purpose? King had become so diluted, his memory so homogenized, so neutered that he had become a mere caricature of himself that even he wouldn’t recognize.
Think about it.
When Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene could use MLKing Day to describe a “new segregation” visited upon the unvaccinated:
Thanks to the hard work of Rev MLK Jr. and others, growing up in Georgia, I've seen the beautiful fruit that blossomed from the Civil Rights Era, where segregation ended & equality began. Today, I believe we are seeing a new segregation and discrimination beginning, wrongfully forced upon unvaccinated Americans by the tyrants of the Democrat Party.
Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, with not one whit of a sense of irony, could tweet, even with the memory of his leading the NO vote on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act last August:
Nearly 60 years since the March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message echoes as powerfully as it did that Day. His legacy inspires us to celebrate and keep building upon the remarkable progress our great nation has made toward becoming a more perfect union.
And the same for the hypocrisy of House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy:
From the halls of Ebenezer Baptist Church to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, #MLK spent his life spreading what he called ‘the gospel of freedom.’ He never gave up and never preached hate. His words and example inspire us today as we celebrate a great American on #MLKDay.
Or people like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly and other right-wing commentators and politicians who selectively – and cynically – quote from King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” all the while working assiduously to deny people of color voting rights and other basic rights and freedoms.
Beware what we do with our saints.
That was Hannah-Jones point:
People who oppose today what he stood for back then do not get to be the arbiters of his legacy. In fact, most white Americans in 1963 opposed the March on Washington where Dr. King gave the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.
I read all the names that white Americans called King: charlatan, demagogue, communist, traitor – and brought out the polling showing more than three quarters of Americans opposed King at his death while 94% approve of him today. Dr. King was a radical critic of racism, capitalism, and militarism. He didn’t die. He was assassinated.
And finally, that is why I believe that Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous Peoples Movements, and other such truth-telling initiatives are essential at this point in our nation’s history to come to grips not only with past transgressions and their present impact, but to recognize the fundamental racism upon which our political and economic and social systems are based. In the absence of such a national reckoning, reparations, and reconciliation, we will remain a divided country blind to our own continued complicity in America’s original sin.