Imagine a national survey that asks people to summarize the meaning of MLK Day. The responses would probably capture the obvious and inevitably simplistic consensus. In the mainstream narrative, this holiday commemorates the extraordinary leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the fight against segregation. Despite its superficial historical accuracy, this popular conception performs a surreptitiously subversive ideological function: it obscures the deeper and far more radical meanings of this annual commemoration.
Sadly, that’s the nature of all notional solidarities. They typically form around the least common denominators, the ideas that appease everyone, offend no one and change nothing. Speeches and commemorations held across the country today expressed strikingly timid visions of of what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would do to promote civil rights in 2014. Recalling King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the late civil rights leader would want school children to hear it as a call to stay in school and become educated to better the world. In New York City, newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, who swept into office promising broader opportunities for poorer residents, said at a tribute: “Dr. King would tell us we can’t wait” to bring income equality to New Yorkers.
Far more obscene than these half-baked slogans, some retailers and consumer-product brands today tried to “celebrate” the life of the slain civil rights leader with 20 percent discounts on your next purchase. ZzzQuil, a sibling of NyQuil, posted this tasteless Tweet: “Today is the day for dreaming. Happy MLK Day.”
But, at this august moment of human history, our collective reticence about the deeper meaning of the MLK Day represents an unnecessary and counter-productive concession to conventional propriety. Why commemorate world-changing ideas from the past, if we don’t plan to use the memory to change our world today? After all, many of the injustices we confront today are no less odious and destructive than the injustices that stirred Dr. King’s revolutionary imagination.
In mythological/mystical terms, a quest for the “Promised Land” does not refer to a land with quantifiable space-time coordinates. Rather, the story of the quest expresses a deep existential yearning for embodied enlightenment and a healing of injustices. This trans-generational universal yearning echoes through all great visions, fueling the noblest impulses of our radical imagination. Consider:
- Decades have passed since Dr. King shared with us the light of his encounters with the “Burning Bush”. Because of this light, we are a better nation today. For one thing, we no longer restrict bus seats or water fountains by race.
- Centuries have passed since Jews fled from slavery in Egypt to seek their Promised Land. Because of their bravery, the sea parted, and their oppressors suffered a defeat. Jews became a “Great Nation”, as God had promised.
- Several iconoclasts in the 16 century — Nicolaus Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilei — humbled humanity so deeply that hubris should no longer enter any civilized mind.
- A later generation of revolutionary spirits — e.g., Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung — sliced away deeper layers of illusion, revealing far more complex truths of the human condition.
Injustice has occurred in the past, and it will occur in the future. In every generation, human societies have enshrined false beliefs, and they will continue to consecrate gilded idols at the expense of human liberty and social justice. Despite this mainstream subversion of radical truths, the muffled meanings of Dr. King’s work still ring through his essays and speeches. Dr. King and other thinkers cut from the same cloth have left us a rich legacy that includes not only a rousing vision but also an impressive tactical sophistication.
No society can confront injustice or displace ideological anachronisms if it treats this confrontation merely as a fictional experience or a matter of a distant past. No society genuinely hoping for better days should get tangled up in re-fighting the last battle or in anticipating battles to come. Confrontations with injustice always rage in the Here and Now. Finally, no society will succeed at anything of value if it habitually reduces the ideas of its noblest leaders to bumper-stickers and Tweets offering 20% discounts.