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Today is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I almost hate that we commemorated a holiday in his honor because I’m convinced iconicity leads to erasure. And though the epitome of Black Moses, he still has so much to teach us. That said, I want to honor King by sharing some of his ideas and engaging some of his problems. Not to say “he was great, but…” but rather to say “he was great, and…” as well as to model how we might lift up and hold the Black Moses’s we love accountable. Black feminism demands that much.
Full disclosure: I had a serious crush on King and Malcolm X back in the day. I was infatuated by their Black radical voice and political courage. As a high school teen in a predominantly white and wealthy community, I longed for encounters with Black radical righteous indignation, which at that time predominantly came in the form of the Black male voice. Or at least that’s what was accessible to me. To be honest, I hadn’t awakened to Black feminism yet. I’m a child of the Black Church and a Black Baptist preacher. Black Moses and the Black male radical voice were Black righteous discontentment in my young mind. And it didn’t hurt that both King and X were aesthetically pleasing to my lonely Black teenage eyes in my predominately white context. One day we gone talk about how falling in love with the political mind may lead to all kinds of emotional feelings. Anyway, I used to record their speeches on cassette tapes and pop them in at night as I fell asleep. I memorized their talking points by heart. They made me feel protected, brave, and proud. However, it wasn’t until graduate school that I got to appreciate King for more than his speeches and soundbites. I got to learn about the ideas behind his speeches. The latter of which my husband and I respected so much that we named our youngest son Martin.
What We Can Learn from Dr. King
King was right about a great many things, but he was not perfect. His political rootedness in agape raised questions as it also suspended self-care. And his belief in ultimate human goodness at times seemed idyllic rather than pragmatic. I do wonder what he’d have to say about white mob mentality, the courts, the color-line, the administration, racism, and democracy today in the post-Civil Rights and Obama era. I wonder what he’d think about the government shutdown, the subsequent demand for free labor, and the separation of children from their families at the border. I wonder what he’d say about the new tax laws, privileging the wealthy and further marginalizing the poor and working class. I imagine he’d say that power not rooted in love is reckless and abusive, yet “power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice…and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” And more, that humans have the capacity and higher calling to achieve a more moral and just world, despite what we’re seeing. I imagine he’d tell us we have a moral duty to keep resisting anyhow, that it’s immoral to leave injustices imposed by society uncritiqued, and that the sacred value of human personality should ceaselessly oppose every act of discrimination and injustice that degrades personality, wherever and whenever it exists. In short, he’d tell us to keep on and stay the course.
And this is why I think King, our quintessential Black Moses, would appreciate what I’m about to say next in the spirit of keeping on and satyagraha (holding on to truth), which guided his life. King’s lived personalism, his theory of somebodiness, and his notion of love as a methodology were beautiful and brilliant but also anemic. It is well known that he was a rabid womanizer and evidenced problematic commitments to toxic masculinity. Audre Lorde, Barbara Jordan, and Angela Davis told us how the Civil Rights movement was grossly patriarchal and sexist. Ella Baker let us know the same in terms of King and other Black male Baptist preachers in the movement specifically. Delores Williams once said King’s “beloved community” and theory of somebodiness should be understood in terms of his sexism. Did sexism not disrupt his vision of “beloved community,” inherent dignity and worth, and innate sacredness? Here’s the rub: Like so many others, King was hard on racial politics and democratic ideals and soft on sex and gender. His family life and situatedness in the Black Church provide clues here. It’s not uncommon for Black families, communities, and churches to uplift Black people, including Black women, while participating in sexism and patriarchy (as well as homophobia and trans-antagonism). King often said Tubman and Truth were the forerunners to the Civil Rights movement, while ascribing to and benefitting from the Black Moses leadership approach.
And before we make excuses for him only being one person, one, social solidarity doesn’t take much (ask Frederick Douglass), and two, there was opportunity. To be clear, inherent human sacredness, dignity, worth, and beloved community in the most concrete sense cannot entail womanizing, patriarchy, and sexism. Women “must be treated as ends and never as mere means,” too. There was also political opportunity. Of course, there was the Women’s Movement. But also, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act barred discrimination in employment on the basis of race and sex in 1964. And the Executive Order 11375 (1967), which expanded President Lyndon Johnson’s affirmative action policy of 1965 to cover discrimination based on gender, made it so federal agencies and contractors were inclusive of women and racial minorities, and so that they could enjoy the same educational and employment opportunities as white males. Sex and gender were on the table. If nothing else, Black feminists and Black women movement workers kept it at the forefront. It seems King’s belief in the courts, democracy, moral law, and somebodiness would have led him to consider his politics towards women as well as to expand his ideas of moral duty and agape, particularly if power at its best looks like not only correcting everything that stands against justice but implementing a love ethic that is inclusive, humanizing, and impartial.
What might it have meant for King’s ethics of love, democracy, and somebodiness to embody the circular and collective leadership and politics of Ella Baker? I don’t know. Ultimately, I think King needed more time. I think he needed more time to work through the kinks in his theories of agape and somebodiness. He needed more time to work through his idea of democracy – because not only did it exclude intracommunal material practice, it was rooted in Hobbesian and Lockean social contract theory, which understood “natural rights” and “rational men” in terms of property owners, white men, exclusion, and deception. He needed more time to think through establishing beloved community in a nation that is fundamentally flawed, whose formation was essentially immoral, and whose power brokers are largely antiblack. He needed more time to develop a critique of the Black Church and familial structure, which informed his messianic leadership style and thus consistently calls for its Black Moses. And more, he needed more time to critique his personal contradictions, which limited his ability to be radically inclusive.
But I think he would’ve gotten there.
And it is because of this, despite his flaws, I still think he is one of the greatest men to ever live. We’d do well to learn from both his radical vision and his mistakes.
P.S. We can show love and offer valuable correction at the same time. It doesn’t make the burden of the color-line obscure. It makes our Black radical voice more powerful.
Tamura Lomax received her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in Religion where she specialized in Black Religion and Black Diaspora Studies and developed expertise in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Black British and U.S. Black Cultural Studies. In 2018, Dr. Lomax published her first single authored monograph, Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture (Duke University Press). She also organized and guest edited the special issue, “Black Bodies in Ecstasy: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Politics of Pleasure” (Black Theology: An International Journal, Nov 2018). In 2017, Dr. Lomax curated #BlackSkinWhiteSin, a discourse on sex, violence, and the Black Church. In 2014, she published Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Cultural Productions (Palgrave Macmillan), a co-authored edited volume with Rhon S. Manigault-Bryant and Carol B. Duncan. She is currently at work on her latest book, Raising Non-Toxic Sons in White Supremacist America. She is the co-founder, CEO, and visionary of The Feminist Wire. For more or to conact, visit Bios.