Today we remember the real Martin Luther King, and the challenge that he still poses for us:
“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.”
He challenged America profoundly, and consequently, if he were still around, he would not be considered a plaster saint today. He would be extremely unpopular in many corners of society. He got in the way.
As we say practically every MLK Day — read the real Letter from a Birmingham jail.
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
I had reason to come across another appropriate and prescient warning on race, from Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in the Bakke affirmative action ruling from 1978:
I suspect that it would be impossible to arrange an affirmative action program in a racially neutral way and have it successful. To ask that this be so is to demand the impossible. In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently. We cannot — we dare not — let the Equal Protection Clause perpetuate racial supremacy.
Due to the Harvard case currently before the Court, this warning is likely to be rather current again. And this is why the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is important. We must act with a consciousness of race, because we wish it to not be determinative of a person’s social class. “Color-blindness” — if such a thing actually exists when it is asserted — is a denial of history and reality.
It’s not enough to stop digging a hole: We mean to fill it in. That means bringing the hidden tensions to light.