The Radical King

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day, and I followed columnist Esther Cepeda in reading King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But I’ve also been reading Cornel West’s “The Radical King,” which reprints many of Martin Luther King’s more “radical” essays and sermons. King’s analysis of America’s original sin is undeniable, but his views on power and nonviolence are difficult to wrap one’s head around, at least for a non-believer like me. I am grateful for Cornel West — who among other things is a Baptist minister — for assembling an anthology that provides a religious window into King’s radical politics. Or maybe visa versa.

West sees no contradiction between the man most know as the Nonviolent King and the one he calls the Radical King. King’s nonviolence, for all the nods to Ghandi and other religious traditions, was rooted in his Christianity and specifically in the Black Church. There were also connections to the Jewish prophetic tradition — in which prophets rage against the evils of kings and tyrants. This may be one reason for King’s friendship with Abraham Joshua Heschel.

King’s most famous speech was part of a 1963 march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and when he was killed King was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. King told his staff in 1966, “There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” King traveled across the country with his Poor People’s Campaign, a campaign that Rev. William Barber today is trying to revive. And though the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, four years later King still found himself fighting for civil and economic rights when he was assassinated in 1968.

The America of 1968 was the America of Always — not only on the verge of imploding from racial injustice but also from economic injustices and wars of choice that kill black, brown and poor white men and bankrupt America financially and morally. At quite a cost to his own political capital, and even putting himself at odds with other black leaders, King spoke out against American militarism and materialism.

King was regarded as the “most dangerous man in America” by J. Edgar Hoover, who also tried to brand King as a Soviet asset — not because he was a nonviolent advocate of racial equality (which was most certainly true), but because he represented a challenge to economic and political exploitation.

We are all familiar with the “long arc” optimism of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but no one ever got to hear the more pessimistic sermon King had planned to deliver the Sunday after he was murdered, “Why America May Go To Hell.”

Before his death the Radical King had grown disillusioned with white liberals whose solidarity never matches our rhetoric, and he witnessed a repudiation of nonviolence among many of his supporters. In one essay King discusses Stokely Carmichael’s rejection of both white allies and nonviolence. With increased physical repression, members of Carmichael’s SNCC, CORE, and Deacons for Defense were all beginning to question the limits of nonviolent strategy. In the excerpt West chose on “Black Power” from 1967, King never repudiates nonviolence but clearly understands and even appreciates the reasons Black Power advocates gave for their willingness to use force if necessary:

“Black Power advocates contend that the Negro must develop his own sense of strength. No longer are ‘fear, awe, and obedience’ to rule. This accounts for, though it does not justify, some Black Power advocates who encourage contempt and even civil disobedience as alternatives to the old patterns of slavery. Black Power assumes that Negroes will be slaves unless there is a new power to counter the force of the men who are still determined to be masters rather than brothers.”

By coincidence, my book group’s selection this month was Colson Whitehead’s “Nickel Boys,” set in Tallahassee, Florida in 1962. The very first page begins with Elwood Curtis’s thoughts on a ten cent record of Martin Luther King’s speeches. King’s speeches served other purposes than a moral call to action. For kids like Elwood, King’s words were educational and also an affirmation of black pride:

“In the third cut on side A, Dr. King spoke of how his daughter longed to visit the amusement park on Stewart Avenue in Atlanta. […] Dr. King had to tell her in his low, sad rumble about the segregation system that kept colored boys and girls on the other side of the fence. Explain the misguided thinking of some whites — not all whites, but enough whites — that gave it force and meaning. He counseled his daughter to resist the lure of hatred and bitterness and assured her that ‘Even though you can’t go to Fun Town, I want you to know that you are as good as anybody who goes into Fun Town.’ That was Elwood — as good as anyone.”

Elwood is well-read, naive, and a bit of a geek. And when his bicycle chain snaps, Elwood ends up being arrested along with the driver of the stolen Plymouth he has hitched a ride with. Elwood’s grandmother Harriet, a great believer in doing things by the book, respectably, hires a white lawyer who then absconds with the $200 intended to defend Elwood. Elwood ends up in Nickel Academy, a segregated prison camp for boys, where many go missing without explanation.

Whitehead’s book deals with the boys’ attitudes toward resistance and compliance, particularly in a prison setting long after Jim Crow should have disappeared. A boy appropriately named Turner “with an eerie sense of self” who knows that only he is ultimately responsible for his own safety is the foil for the tragically well-behaved and trusting Elwood.

In one passage which seems to illustrate the divide between Black Power and King’s nonviolent approach, Elwood is still trying to make sense of Dr. King’s agape (pure love):

“He called upon his Negro audience to cultivate that pure love for their oppressors, that it might carry them to the other side of the struggle. Elwood tried to get his head around it, now that it was no longer the abstraction floating in his head last spring. It was real now:

Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win our freedom.

The capacity to suffer. Elwood — all the Nickel boys — existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.

Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.

Indeed. What an impossible thing.

As he stated somewhat prophetically in his last speech, King had been to the mountain top. And King had seen the Big Picture if not been given sacred insight. King’s early sermons were well-crafted moral calls to action, Christian in style and language, but frequently referenced other religious traditions. King was often ecumenical and always accessible. For example, in 1956 King delivered a sermon to 12,000 people at an Episcopal cathedral in New York City on the second anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. His talk was about evil. King’s sermon contained the seeds of the same argument that so perplexed our young Elwood:

“Let us remember that as we struggle against Egypt, we must have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that as we seek to defeat the evils of Egypt we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.”

Some will find King’s argument for nonviolence unconvincing (and I am one). There are both political and religious reasons for this. I can well imagine Abraham Joshua Heschel arguing with King about pikuach nefesh — the Jewish obligation to save human life. Some admire radical King’s love for the oppressed — except for perhaps 60% of the American white population. Some admire the prophetic King for speaking truth to power, while others are surprised at his growing understanding of (and even sympathy for) those advocating change “by any means necessary” (King had approached Malcolm X in 1966 about working together on a UN resolution).

Though King believed in ecumenism and frequently linked arms with men of different faiths, West cautions us to always remember that King’s

“radical love flows from an imitation of Christ, a response to an invitation of self-surrender in order to emerge fully equipped to fight for justice in a cold and cruel world of domination and exploitation. The scandal of the Cross is precisely the unstoppable and unsuffocatable love that keeps moving in a blood-soaked history, even in our catastrophic times. There is no radical King without his commitment to radical love.”

Though it has become expected that pundits and even some white supremacists will quote King and visit the various memorials that commemorate his life and words, King was a complicated man. Despite his rejection of violence, King’s speeches empowered at least one generation of young black men and women like Elwood. King’s anthologized words cannot be reduced to easily-digestible snacks, even for those who admire him. Cornel West’s collection shows us, in King’s own words, some of that complexity and contradiction.

Martin Luther King’s ideas continue to challenge Americans to examine the roots of our national sin, to consider with clear eyes a strategy that may have failed King himself, and to look for new solutions to heal this blighted nation.

That is, if America doesn’t go to Hell first.

“A little late, gentlemen”

As the United States continues to slide into fascism, I have been rereading Hannah Arendt’s book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” concerning the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of a war criminal who expressed himself in cliches, was an ambitious braggart, an egregious liar, an ignorant sociopath, someone attracted to and utterly at the service of men of power. We have many of these creatures living among us today. It could happen here. It is happening here.

In Arendt’s discussion of how ordinary Germans made themselves accomplices in something so monstrous as the Holocaust, she touches on the coup attempt that almost ended Hitler’s regime. Arendt quotes from German novelist Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, who himself died in a concentration camp on the eve of the collapse of the Third Reich. In his “Diary of a Man in Despair” Reck-Malleczewen writes of those who participated in the dictatorship who could have stopped Hitler early on — but only thought of it too late to save their nation.

I swear, he was talking to the Republican Senators of 2020:

“A little late, gentlemen, you who made this archdestroyer of [the nation] and ran after him, as long as everything seemed to be going well; you who […] without hesitation swore every oath demanded of you and reduced yourselves to the despicable flunkies of this criminal […] Now, when the bankruptcy can no longer be concealed, they betray the house that went broke, in order to establish a political alibi for themselves — the same men who have betrayed everything that was in the way of their claim to power.”

Inhumane

I recently read Ken Hartnett’s Christmas letter about the Ancient Scribe and Dory, his Angel Dog. The Ancient Scribe was right on the money about our capacity to discover humanity in the presence of animals but to completely fail at it with our fellow man.

Hartnett’s piece also reminded me of how we treat the humans in our jails.

The National Sheriff’s Association — the organization representing rogue sheriffs like Sam Page, David Clarke, and Tom Hodgson, which celebrates the abuses of Customs and Border Patrol officers — has a soft spot for animals.

Yes, the NSA actually endorsed legislation on animal cruelty, arguing that there is a link between animal cruelty and cruelty to humans. And who would disagree?

But the sheriffs don’t appreciate the irony of defending puppies while torturing humans in the county jails they themselves operate.

Not to be outdone by Stetson-hatted hypocrites, last month Donald Trump just signed the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act (PACT), giving rights to animals that he himself refuses to extend to Central American children in his concentration camps.

But showing concern for animal rights while simultaneously being indifferent to human life and suffering is a feature of laws right here in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts has animal cruelty statutes that provide for up to seven years in prison for animal abuse. In 2016 the Attorney General charged ten people with the mistreatment of over a thousand animals on a farm in Westport.

But when it comes to protecting the state’s prison population, the AG’s office has refused to deploy its own civil rights division to stop an epidemic of jail abuses including suicides and cruel and unusual punishments.

In March 2019 the Animal Legal Defense Fund named Massachusetts state senator Mark Montigny as one of America’s Top Ten Animal Defenders for his sponsorship of the PAWS II Act, a comprehensive set of animal protection legislation.

But even before Montigny’s bill became law, the rights of dogs and cats in the Commonwealth had a leg up —  four legs up, actually — on the rights of their human counterparts. According to Massachusetts General Laws, Part I, Title XX, Chapter 140, Section 137C:

“The mayor of a city, the selectmen of a town, the police commissioner in the city of Boston, a chief of police or an animal control officer may at any time inspect a kennel or cause the inspection of a kennel. If, in the judgment of such person or body, the kennel is not being maintained in a sanitary and humane manner or if records are not properly kept as required by law, such person or body shall, by order, revoke or suspend the license for the kennel.”

That’s right. Kennels may be freely inspected by public officials if conditions are believed to be unsanitary or inhumane. Inspection is a right that not even state legislators can exercise in Massachusetts “corrections” facilities.

For dogs, state law likewise regulates confinement:

“No person owning or keeping a dog shall chain or tether a dog for longer than 5 hours in a 24–hour period and outside from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., unless the tethering is for not more than 15 minutes and the dog is not left unattended by the owner, guardian or keeper.”

Right again. “No excessive solitary” for dogs is written into Massachusetts law — while we wait for the courts to decide if the overuse of solitary confinement on mentally-ill prisoners in Bristol County represents cruel and unusual punishment, as a Prisoners’ Legal Services suit asserts.

Under Massachusetts law, a dog must be given adequate space to move around in and environmental considerations (including heat and cold) are strictly regulated. Several specific types of inhumane treatment are prohibited:

“(1) filthy and dirty confinement conditions including, but not limited to, exposure to excessive animal waste, garbage, dirty water, noxious odors, dangerous objects that could injure or kill a dog upon contact or other circumstances that could cause harm to a dog’s physical or emotional health;

(2) taunting, prodding, hitting, harassing, threatening or otherwise harming a tethered or confined dog; and

(3) subjecting a dog to dangerous conditions, including attacks by other animals.”

No such protections exist for the safety and well-being of humans confined in Massachusetts jails and prisons. Last year we discovered that corrections officers had organized racist gladiator fights in the Dartmouth jail.

Finally, it boggles my mind that “inhumane” is the adjective we use to describe the mistreatment of animals — but not of fellow humans who, shown no pity, instead are believed to “deserve what they get” in the American carceral system.

But there is a solution. By simply re-designating jails as “kennels” — a name change prison rights advocates point out already describes conditions in state prisons and jails — human prisoners in Massachusetts can finally receive the legal rights their four-legged friends already enjoy.

It’s a crazy idea, I know. But not half as insane as what we do to our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, friends and neighbors, whom we abuse in filthy, inhumane conditions with no intention of ever rehabilitating them.