by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier
Brown University economist Glenn Loury hosts an online program called The Glenn Show. His frequent conversation partner is Columbia University linguist John McWhorter. Together they are known as the Black guys at Bloggingheads.tv or the Black professors from the Ivory Tower. In January’s episode they discussed MLK’s national holiday and Loury asked the following questions.
1). What does MLK day represent? It’s 52 years after MLK’s death and American society still doesn’t know the answer to that question. Is it about his pacifism, his Christian morality, his devotion to the United States living out the true meaning of its creed, or is it about his radicalism? (Loury called King a socialist, and if alive today, would be voting for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.)
2). Is it a day of recognition of “The Negro,” “Blacks,” “African Americans” within the American story?
3). Is the legacy of Malcolm X and “Black power” more prominent and influential to the woke/Black Lives Matter generation than MLK?
4). What will the MLK holiday be 50 years from now?
The first year that MLK’s birthday was a national holiday was 1986. During my childhood I was told the holiday honored the man and the movement that transformed and integrated America. (This answers Loury second question to some degree.) Between 1986 and 1993 the holiday existed, but lacked an official activity to honor the occasion. In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed a bill that turned the holiday into a day of community service, anti-violence campaigning, and interracial discussions. By that time, I was a young adult and discovered there were two King legacies. There was the “civil rights” King, remembered for his activities between the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and the passage of the 1965 voting rights act, and there was the “radical” King, who was anti-war, anti-capitalist, pro-labor, and pro-redistribution of wealth.
In the 1990s it was widely believed that the “powers that be” promoted the “civil rights” King, non-violence, and a colorblind society in order to suppress the “radical” King and his post-1965 message of economic justice. I think this contrived conflict between the two legacies prompted Loury’s first question because it’s still debated today. But those that suggest the “civil rights” King has suppressed the “radical” King have it backwards. Four days after King’s assassination Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill to make King’s birthday a national holiday. The bill would have died in committee if it weren’t for labor unions who demanded it in contract negotiations throughout the 1970s. King was killed while supporting a labor strike in Memphis and organized labor wanted to honor “radical” King as a working-class hero. “Civil Rights” King was incorporated into the holiday once it came into existence. The MLK holiday has represented “radical” King and “civil rights” King. It’s only ideologues on the left and right that choose one version of King and reject the other.
Now, the woke/Black Lives Matter generation have embraced the legacy of Malcolm X in posture but not in philosophy. Malcolm X spoke for Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. He articulated Muhammad’s version of Black nationalism, but Malcolm X eventually left the Nation of Islam and was assassinated before he developed a philosophical framework of his own. The woke/Black Lives Matter generations imitate Malcolm’s militancy, but they philosophically emulate “radical” king.
What will the MLK holiday be 50 years from now?
The same thing it is today, but they’ll have to answer these questions themselves.