07 April 2008

The King and us, part II

Richard Estes of American Leftist ends his post on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. with a more concrete exploration of the theme I was poking blindly at yesterday. He points to this article by Michael Eric Dyson, whose book on King is on my To Read Someday list. Dyson writes:

King's skepticism and anger were often muted when he spoke to white America, but they routinely resonated in black sanctuaries and meeting halls across the land. Nothing highlights that split -- or white America's ignorance of it and the prophetic black church King inspired -- more than recalling King's post-1965 odyssey, as he grappled bravely with poverty, war and entrenched racism. That is the King who emerges as we recall the meaning of his death. After the grand victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, King turned his attention to poverty, economic injustice and class inequality. King argued that those "legislative and judicial victories did very little to improve" Northern ghettos or to "penetrate the lower depths of Negro deprivation." In a frank assessment of the civil rights movement, King said the changes that came about from 1955 to 1965 "were at best surface changes" that were "limited mainly to the Negro middle class." In seeking to end black poverty, King told his staff in 1966 that blacks "are now making demands that will cost the nation something. ... You're really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then."

King's conclusion? "There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism." He didn't say this in the mainstream but to his black colleagues.

Similarly, although King spoke famously against the Vietnam War before a largely white audience at Riverside Church in New York in 1967, exactly a year before he died, he reserved some of his strongest antiwar language for his sermons before black congregations. In his own pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, two months before his death, King raged against America's "bitter, colossal contest for supremacy." He argued that God "didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world today," preaching that "we are criminals in that war" and that we "have committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world." King insisted that God "has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, 'Don't play with me, Israel. Don't play with me, Babylon. Be still and know that I'm God. And if you don't stop your reckless course, I'll rise up and break the backbone of your power.' "
Richard adds:
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? If King were alive today, Barack Obama would find himself criticized for attending one of his services, but, one suspects, there would be a different rule for whites. The curious aspect is that the fundamental subject of King's sermons, much like the ones of Jeremiah Wright that were publicized recently, was not the Vietnam War (in Wright's case, the Iraq one) or the predations of US foreign policy, but rather, the primacy of the Christian God over nations on earth created by men.

We are not exposed to punishment and degradation because of what we create these nations to do. Instead, we are exposed to it because we believe that the nation state is superior to the word of God. Accordingly, there is a hubris associated with such a belief that invariably culminates in brutality. Naturally, at a time in which Christian evangelicalism is ascendant, no one objected to this aspect of Wright's sermons. Liberals act as if this aspect of King's activism never existed.

I understand the point, I think, but I'm not sure I'm all the way there regarding the influence of Christian evangelicalism as a whole on the reaction to Wright's sermons. After all, it was Wright having the audacity to declare "God damn America" that had the chattering classes most ostensibly appalled. The same scrutiny is seldom given to conservative white preachers who declare various catastrophes to be God's punishment for our permissive culture. Presumably, this is because the latter group sees no special conflict between the two. Being a part of the powerful class themselves in many cases, they are more than willing to syncretize the Christian God with American supremacy.