King's Radical Belief

By Michael Gerson
Friday, May 16, 2008

Washington is debating the design of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, to be built on four quiet acres among the cherry trees along the Tidal Basin. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts -- the final arbiter of memorial aesthetics -- recently judged a proposed, 2 1/2 -story granite sculpture of King too "confrontational," comparing it to toppled statues of Lenin.

Whatever the artistic merits of socialist realism, the memorial controversy parallels a renewed debate on King's half-carved image in our history.

As Barack Obama attempted to extricate himself from his 20-year association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., some Obama supporters claimed that Wright's anger is really not so different from King's -- that both preachers represent a distinguished tradition of African American outrage. King, they said, was a radical in his own way, and his message should not be domesticated or diluted by conservatives. Before Wright was sacrificed to save Obama, King was sacrificed to explain Wright.

But this casual little historical crime -- committed for transient political reasons -- leaves lasting damage.

Like other American heroes -- Jefferson, for example, combined a disturbing tolerance for the violence of the French Revolution with the lifelong ownership of slaves -- King was not a simple figure. He inclined toward democratic socialism as the answer to poverty. In his opposition to the Vietnam War, he called America "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and thundered that God might "break the backbone" of American power. Toward the end of his short life -- after years of fire hoses and attack dogs, wiretaps and bomb threats -- King became increasingly isolated and depressed.

But King's distinctive contribution lies not in the outrage he felt but in the hope he offered -- a hope found in the application of American ideals, not in their denial or replacement. "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence," King said, "they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. . . . Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt."

In the 19th century, some white abolitionists did believe the American bank of justice was bankrupt. As Diana Schaub pointed out in the Public Interest, William Lloyd Garrison attacked the Constitution as "a covenant with Death and an agreement with Hell" and urged free states to secede from the Union. It was the former slave Frederick Douglass who called the Constitution "a glorious liberty document" that could be used as an instrument of emancipation. Douglass was no moderate -- he argued that slaves justly could kill their masters, and he financially supported John Brown -- but he affirmed that America's founding documents were the most powerful source of reform. As did Lincoln. As did King.

Under King's leadership, the civil rights movement affirmed several principles: a belief that Providence favors justice and forbids despair; a belief that even the most bigoted whites have a core of humanity that might be touched and redeemed; a belief that American ideals were the ultimate answer to America's sins.

These beliefs were often criticized by King's contemporaries such as Malcolm X (who dismissed the 1963 March on Washington as the "Farce on Washington") and Stokely Carmichael (who argued that voting rights were "irrelevant to the lives of black people"). And these beliefs remain controversial with leaders such as Wright and professor James Cone, the father of black liberation theology. "Black theology," wrote Cone, "will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy."

The problem with this approach is not that it is political, or even liberal -- the African American church has generally been both. The problem is that it leads to a dead end of anger, conspiracy theories and futility. And it ignores the deeper radicalism of the American experiment -- the radicalism of full citizenship and justice for every American -- that inspired King, and that will inspire others.

King was, in fact, "confrontational." But Americans generally pick their heroes with good reason. King did not always bless America, but he staked his life on its deepest beliefs. He affirmed a common American identity and destiny, based on the Declaration of Independence.

This is why King will get his memorial on the Mall, and Wright will not.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company