You’re no MLK

Guess who this is:

Like other American heroes . . . . [NAME] 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 — [NAME] became increasingly isolated and depressed.

Sounds like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright–or someone equally "angry."  But no, it's Martin Luther King.  One might be tempted from such a description to rethink the universal condemnation of Reverend Wright.  In his own context, Martin Luther King said some pretty astounding things about God's judgment of American arrogance.  But where one might draw lessons from history, Michael Gerson sees only differences.  People other than King, you know, the people like the Reverend Wright (Gerson oddly doesn't use any of Wright's words in this piece on why he's no MLK), are unamerican.

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.

The problem with Wright, you see, is that he seems to claim that the American experiment (when will people stop saying that?  The experiment is over by now) hasn't produced "full citizenship and justice for every American."  How dare he.

8 thoughts on “You’re no MLK”

  1. So I understand, just a few questions:

    1) In spite of the overlap between what the two men had to say, do you believe that MLK and Jeremiah Wright have fundamental differences on how far they will go, like when Rev. Wright talks about AIDS and when he flies into his most rhetorical flourishes?

    2) Couldn’t one be critical of the rhetoric MLK used when he talked about God possibly  “breaking the backbone of American power,” and about America being the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” but believe that his core message was one of peace and reconciliation, and find this praiseworthy?

    3) Couldn’t one also see Jeremiah Wright using the grand stage instead to promote his more…controversial views, and therefore think that while he and MLK shared some incendiary rhetoric, that Wright crossed lines that MLK didn’t?

    It seemed to me that the selected words from Gerson actually assert that there are key differences between MLK and Jeremiah Wright, so pointing out that there are similarities doesn’t seem sufficient to rebut Gerson’s point, especially since the similarities you cite don’t necessarily seem to be in the same sphere as the differences Gerson cites.

    And surely Gerson didn’t say that Wright’s problem is that Wright said our experiment hasn’t produced full citizenship and justice for every American. I’m supposing that was a tongue-in-cheek comment on your part, or you’re asserting that you have reason to believe that this is the *real* cause of the hubbub over Rev. Wright. If you do feel this way, that seems like something that should be argued for, rather than asserted.

  2. Thanks for the insightful questions.  Let me see if I can answer them briefly.   My point was to suggest that both Wright and MLK said harshly critical things about the US–as Gerson points out in his piece.  That’s really it.  Wright has been lambasted for saying the same kinds of things MLK said.  But more particularly, he has been lambasted for the mere fact of having said these things–not, as Gerson seems to think, for not having an accompanying message of hope or whatever.  Besides, Gerson doesn’t bother much with that question (whether Wright has a message of hope, etc.).  A couple of quotes from other people will suffice in Gerson’s mind to show that he doesn’t.

    There are likely to be large differences between the two men, but Gerson doesn’t do much to discuss them in a way that’s fair to Wright.  That was the point of “you’re no MLK.”  With this kind of analysis, no kidding.

    In the end, Wright is a complicated person.  More complicated than the few phrases mostly taken out of context might suggest.  The comparison then with MLK is bound to be unfair to Wright. 

    As for the last remark.  Wright has been criticized for being harshly critical of racial injustice in America.  MLK was too.   Both challenged the view that the “radicalism of the American experiment” has been realized.  MLK is lionized for it (rightly so); Wright demonized. 

  3. jcasey,

    Thanks for the reply.

    I just don’t think it’s true that Rev. Wright was demonized *simply* because he was harshly critical of racial injustice in America. It seems clear that you believe this, but it seems like something you need to argue for, rather than just assert.

    When you describe things at this level of abstraction, you make it seem like the theater, content, and style of Wrights’s rhetoric, hyperbole, and delivery played no role in the way people reacted.

    The words you selected actually show the writer attempting to point to differences between Wright and MLK, by associating Wright with a person who said the “white enemy” needs to be destroyed. The writer also asserted that MLK’s inclusive message is controversial with Wright. Maybe those assertions on the part of the writer are unwarranted, but if the differences pointed to by the writer are true, then this would seem to be sufficient to show important differences between Wright and MLK.

    Once again maybe this is unwarranted on the part of the writer, but your objection is that MLK was lionized for being harshly critical of racial injustice in America while Wright was demonized, and once again this is at such a high level of abstraction that it leaves out just about everything one would need to make a judgment. The devil is in the details, in other words.

    It’s just not true that Wright was *simply* critical of racial injustice.

  4. Hi Jay J.,

    I’m perhaps not being clear (a not unusual fact by the way).  Wright has been criticized for the content of his criticism, the same type of criticism MLK made.  Wright has been demonized for that criticism, MLK not (at least in Gerson’s piece).   Therein the difference. 

    I didn’t say, I don’t think, that Wright has been criticized “simply” for that criticism.  He has been criticized for making the criticism (as well as other things).  That’s a rather minimal point.  There are, obviously, other differences between the two.

    Thanks for the comment.

  5. jcasey,

    Thanks again for the reply.

    I think it must be that we’re reading different things from Gershon (sorry, that was a little tongue-in-cheek).

    The part of the article that you’ve selected accuses Wright of having some sort of problem with MLK’s core message of a universal humanity. It also clumps Wright in with a person who has said that the “white enemy” needs to be destroyed.

    It may be that an appropriate response to the article is to say that MLK’s message of a common humanity is not at all controversial to Wright. Or it may be appropriate to say that Wright either doesn’t associate with the person Gerson said he did, or that MLK closely associated with people who said similar things.

    But instead you’ve said that Wright has been condemned for the content of his critiques (the point I was making earlier is that you seem to ignore the critiques of Wright’s words about AIDS, and the perception that his rhetoric is not as inclusive and universalizing as MLK’s).

    You may feel that the real motive behind virtually all the criticism of Wright is because of the content of his words about the United States, but actually there was more than just that rhetoric dug up. Even Obama thought that his minister went too far from time to time. So I simply don’t agree that the criticism of Wright was simply because his criticism of the U.S. (or that he made the criticism or the content of it). But even if you’re right about that, it isn’t obvious, since particularly in the part of the Gerson article you show, he’s specifically levels a couple of charges against Wright that go unchallenged by you, that Wright has some sort of problem with MLK’s universalizing method, and that Wright is an ally with someone who refers to the “white enemy.”

    You don’t challenge these assertions, but if they’re true then there’s certainly something above and beyond Wright’s criticism of the United States at play here.

    And if they’re not true, then it seems that the appropriate response is to say so, or show that MLK did the same things. You’ve shown that SOME of the rhetoric of MLK and Wright overlap, but you haven’t challenged the assertions in the passage which aim to show key differences between Wright and MLK.

  6. Hi Jay J,

    Thanks for being patient with me.  Let me take one more stab at this. 

    Both MLK and Wright said controversial things.  Both were accused of being anti-American for such claims.

    Now of course MLK is considered by Gerson to be a kind of hero and grand conciliator.  It would be well to remember, however, the obvious fact that during his time he was considered to be divisive, etc, in particular for making the kinds of claims Wright has made.  

    This does not mean Wright is MLK.  It merely means that when we compare such things, we ought to compare them on the same basis.

  7. jcasey,

    Well thank you for being patient with me, and thanks for the discussion.

    The reason I should thank you for being patient with me is because I think you’ve made your point very clear here in the comment section.

    So let me just say that I find your last comment very clear, even cogent.

    It’s just that I don’ think the principle you’ve just laid out applies to the entry.

    Gerson has made a couple of assertions which haven’t been challenged, and I think it’s important to say that he never said Jeremiah Wright was at fault for saying controversial things or even pointing out a lack of equality in America (you may believe that this is the real reason, but in this case it’s not factually obvious).

    In fact, in the selection of his article that you show in the entry, Gerson says that MLK’s message of a core humanity of white people is controversial among Wright and someone Wright is clumped in with, namely a person who says things like “white enemy.”

    Now you may not take these charges very seriously, and you may feel that they are in truth based on the fact that Wright said controversial things by pointing to a lack of equality in America (Or maybe you even feel that MLK’s message of common humanity was overblown or that he closely associated with people who also would have talked about the “white enemy”).

    But it’s not obvious that you feel either of these ways, all you say is that Wright and MLK are both being blamed for saying controversial things by pointing to a lack of equality, but Gerson has blamed Wright for things unrelated to this, and you don’t challenge his assertions.

    In other words, Gerson has made assertions (which haven’t been challenged) that if true, seem sufficient to show that Wright is in fact no MLK.

    See if Gerson had said, “Man, that Rev. Wright shouldn’t say controversial things about a lack of equality in America,” then you would have him dead to rights. But Gerson didn’t say that, and he actually went far enough to make a couple of assertions about Wright that if true, support his conclusion very well, and your argument in one that my apply well in the abstract, but not to the words you selected for the entry.

  8. Jay J.

    Glad some understanding has been achieved.  I’m not surprised unfortunately that I didn’t make myself clear initially.

    As I reread the Gerson piece, however, I think it’s worse than I originally thought.  He admits King said critical things (things which, taken in their proper context, brought on a lot of criticism and FBI attention, among other things).  But rather than wonder whether Wright could be viewed in the same prism now, he draws our attention onto other black ministers (not Wright) with the shiny quotes about God and whites and such.  What that proves about Wright is beyond me.  Gerson is taking it for granted that Wright has been clearly seen and fully understood. 

    So he opens up an obvious avenue of comparison, then turns to the startling words of some other Black ministers to undermine it, and concludes that none of them is an MLK.

    Aside from this, he takes for granted that the message and activity of Wright is merely negative–which, I presume, it isn’t.  But it certainly seems merely negative when you read Gerson’s piece. 

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