We have to avoid the temptation to domesticate Martin Luther King Jr. It is comforting to see him only as the aspirational dreamer of a color-blind society, a vision especially reassuring to white Americans, and leave things at that. But there was a prophetic radicalness to King’s statesmanship, and a telling critique of the American political tradition, that we also must reckon with, learn from, and respond to.
The great political scientist Herbert Storing made this point more broadly in introducing a volume of political writings by African Americans (including King) that he edited and published in 1970. Using the language of that era, Storing observed that,
“When young Frederick Douglass, speaking before the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1847, asked, “What Country Have I?”, he put a question that circumstances compel every black American to ask. And when Douglass affirmed that he had no love for America and that, indeed, he had no country, he gave an answer that every thoughtful black in America has had to consider. This was not Douglass’s final answer, as it has not been the final answer of most blacks in America; but the question does not thereby lose its potency [Storing’s emphasis]….In important respects, then, black Americans are like a revolutionary or, more interestingly perhaps, a founding generation. That is, they are in the difficult but potentially glorious position of not being able to take for granted given political arrangements and values, of having to seriously canvass alternatives, to think through their implications, and to make a deliberate choice. To understand the American polity, one could hardly do better than to study, along with the work and thought of the founders, the best writings of the blacks who are at once its friends, enemies, citizens, and aliens.”
It is thus fitting for us to reflect on the writings, speeches, and acts of Martin Luther King Jr. on the national holiday we have established to honor this great American statesman. It is also fitting that the United States has built a memorial to King on our National Mall, poised on a line between the memorials honoring Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. It is especially fitting that, backed by Lincoln, King looks across the Tidal Basin toward Jefferson with the steadfastness of one who has come to collect an outstanding debt.