Saturday, 23 January 2021

Martin Luther King and the Western tradition



Martin Luther King was a genius, an American founding father, as much as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and the greatest exponent of Christianity perhaps since the founder of the faith.

In his final speech in Memphis on 3 April 1968, the night before his murder, MLK imagines standing at the beginning of time and the Almighty asking him which period of time he’d like to live in.

King responds that he would want to be in Egypt to ‘watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land.’

But, MLK says, he wouldn’t stop there. No, he would move on to Greece, to ‘see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.’

Not that King would stop in Athens. He’d go on the ‘heyday of the Roman Empire’ and then the Renaissance and all it did ‘for the cultural and aesthetic life of man’; he’d stop by in Wittenberg and watch the man he was named after pin his 95 theses to the city’s church and he’d want to be transported to 1863 to watch a ‘vacillating president by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation’, before being taken to the 1930s to see how America coped with financial ruin under FDR’s slogan of ‘there is nothing to fear but fear itself’.

So, having teased the Almighty with great periods in history from the Western imagination, MLK finally reveals to God where he really wants to live and that’s the second half of the 20th century.

King admits that perhaps this might appear to be a strange choice, after all the world is in turmoil and America is sick. However, King says: 

‘But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.'

‘Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

‘And another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.

‘And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn't done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I'm just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I'm happy that He's allowed me to be in Memphis.’


What MLK is doing is placing the black struggle for civil rights and economic justice within the Western tradition. It is in this tradition where we find not only the belief in human equality but also the conviction that such equality is a matter for men and women to achieve by radically altering society.

This recognition of the indispensability of the Western tradition to the project of freedom (or autonomy, as Cornelius Castoriadis would say) stands in opposition not only to competing figures in the black liberation movement, such as Malcolm X, but also to current radical thinking that sees the Western tradition as something inherently colonial and oppressive, to be ditched wholesale.

The irony is that it is only from within the Western tradition – based on self-criticism and the ability of society to call itself into question – that such critics are given the intellectual weapons and political room that allows them to call for the repudiation and destruction of that very tradition. Without self-criticism, without the ability of society to call itself into question, there can be no politics and philosophy, no arguments to be made against slavery, inequality and injustice, no space for men and women to alter society, to bring about new ideas, laws and circumstances.