Follow-up on Martin Luther King: the terror of racism and King’s moral – human – legacy

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The following is a link to an important piece emphasizing just how bad life was for many blacks in America prior to the influence of Martin Luther King.  http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/08/29/1011562/-Most-of-you-have-no-idea-what-Martin-Luther-King-actually-did#

My earlier post did not sufficiently emphasize the importance of the practical influence that Dr. King had on the lives of African Americans in this country – sometimes even to the extent of saving their lives.

I do have an issue with this article, though, namely the author’s emphasis on Doctor King’s impact being primarily on African Americans and consequent defense of African Americans’ right to be possessive of him. Certainly in a sense he’s right, in that African Americans are the ones who were the victims of unfair and sometimes downright murderous treatment, and Dr. King was, of course, an African American working on behalf of his community. And he may be right that that white treatment of blacks changed as a result primarily of blacks taking heart from Dr. King and learning to face their worst fears, i.e., the worst of white persecution – that it was first and foremost as a result of the strengthening of black resolve that white treatment of blacks became more humane. I would add that it is also clear that the impact of Dr. King’s moral insight and eloquence made its own independent impact, as well, on the conscience of white racists and enablers and that the societal change happened as a result of these two impacts simultaneously.  

But my larger point is that I believe in the fundamental principle that we, as human beings, are in this together, in this enterprise of trying to create a moral, just society – in our individual actions, family dynamics, communities and cities, nations and world. Clearly certain groups suffer more from specific acts and campaigns of aggression. But that does not mean that those like Dr. King who have made the world a better place have benefited only (or even mostly) those oppressed groups. Some would call this naive, but I believe the persecutors in such situations, ultimately, are worse off than the victims. As I understand it, this was a fundamental belief of Dr. King and Gandhi (from whom he took inspiration in non-violent resistance) as well. If many whites have ceased to perpetrate evil against blacks as a result of Dr. King and have come to realize that doing so was wrong, then the individuals so influenced have shared very much in Dr. King’s legacy and benefited very much by it.

I find it generally deleterious to divide society up into groups of “us vs. them.” As stated above, there are obviously situations in which one group oppresses another. (Though, as an aside, it occurs very rarely, if ever, that all the members of the oppressor group are evil and thus deserving of demonization. The author of the above article certainly does not engage in such demonization. But I have seen it far too frequently – in my experience, often about Germans, in regard to the Holocaust.) It is naive to assume that people don’t perceive racial differences or that racial persecution doesn’t occur, or to assume, as a member of a group who has not suffered such persecution, that one can fully understand and evaluate its extent. But it is also problematic to claim primary right to the legacy of a moral leader of humanity because one is a member in the group that was the most oppressed prior to his or her influence. I acknowledge that I say this from a position of privilege as it relates to the American Civil Rights struggle. I am racially white, a mix various European backgrounds, with a pretty negligible amount of American Indian ancestry. I’m also a Jew who has suffered from, and sometimes agonized over, exclusion from Jewish community based on my (mostly non-Jewish) ethnicity, as well as from occasional anti-Semitic treatment by non-Jews. So I’m not a total stranger to the experience of being treated badly for belonging to an ethnic or cultural minority. But I don’t think that fact is actually relevant regarding my right to say that moral leaders who improve human beings’ treatment of other human beings help and leave a legacy for us all – victims, oppressors, and those who learn from, without having taken part directly in, the experience. We all are fallible and flawed mortals who hurt and are hurt by, love and are loved by, one another. Those like Dr. King with the merit to teach us to do less of the former and more of the latter give a gift and a legacy to us all.

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