Martin Luther King Jr. had more than a dream.
And it’s way past time to reclaim him as a political thinker rather than a romanticized reverend.
Jonathan Walton and Brandon Terry intend to do just that with their new class, “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Question of Conscientious Citizenship,” at Harvard University.
When students start class this month, they will learn about King the political philosopher, public thinker, passionate preacher, and yes, the radical. They will get a nuanced look at King as a citizen, as a man, and delve beyond the facade of the legend and the sound bites conservatives use to push the rhetoric of colorblindness and condemn activists.
“In so many ways, Dr. King has become America’s racial Easter Bunny,” says Jonathan Walton, Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard. “He is the poster boy of American diversity that is brought out to lay the feel-good eggs at the feet of an otherwise sinful society. As long we focus on the Easter Bunny, we don’t have to deal with the cross and suffering.”
People like to excerpt the comfortable bits from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, about not being “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” and “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
But King’s declaration about the inequity suffered by black people in America, the “promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is ignored.
“Instead of honoring this sacred obligation,” King continued, “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ”
The irony, Walton points out, is that Ronald Reagan signed Martin Luther King Day into law in 1983. Reagan, who had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Reagan, who would quote “I Have a Dream” using “content of their character” to argue against affirmative action in 1985. The way Reagan used King is how America has come to use King — as a weapon to sanitize oppression in America.
“One of the reasons we are teaching this course,” Walton says, “is King has been placed in the pantheon of American civic gods. By George Washington, who could never tell a lie, and Abraham Lincoln and his log cabin, now rests King, the colorblind dreamer, and that is one of the reasons we view it as our responsibility to teach this course on the life and living legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Taught twice a week, the class will be more than celebratory King lectures. It will recognize King, the human, for his flaws and his victories. They will critique and explore his legacy. They will question what it means to be a civic-minded, morally engaged citizen. It’s intended to be a class of dialogue and debate among the students, professors, and guest speakers, including philosophers Cornel West and Myisha Cherry.
“If you are having a serious conversation about rethinking the basic principles on which this country is founded and organized, there is no better place to start than King,” says Terry, assistant professor of African and African American studies and social studies at Harvard.
King, Terry says, didn’t just fight against racism. He took capitalism, economic injustice, war, the ethics of technology, and more to task. The class will push students to think through the ethical and political controversies we face as citizens and ask key questions about conscientiousness and community.
“In an era of intense political polarization, I think reading King teaches you a lot about how to forcefully and conscientiously disagree with other people while still loving and respecting them at a fundamental level,” says Terry, who co-edited “To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.” last year with Harvard colleague Tommie Shelby.
Walton hopes students leave with some of the lessons he himself learned from studying King’s work about how we treat one another in the civic sphere, how you can be comfortable in your own culture and faith and still respect the humanity in others and what we owe one another. Walton’s book “A Lens of Love,’’ released in September, digs into those very dynamics.
“If everybody is equal, everybody should be afforded one vote,” he says. “If everybody is equal in the eyes of God, we should not privilege some people based on race, class, gender, sexuality, and so on. That’s the way King taught me how to hold on to my religious faith commitment while also holding on to democratic ideals.”
Terry wants to pass on King’s “dangerous unselfishness.”
“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” King said in his last sermon, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” made in support of striking sanitation workers. “Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together. Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”
“To really try and bring your lived reality in line with our most cherished principles and understanding,” Terry says, “that’s going to take practice and self-denial and some kind of sacrifice.”
King didn’t just dream. He lived. He marched. He pushed policy. And we’re still working with America’s bad check. There are no days off in this fight for our freedom.
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.