MLK Rituals

As a sociology blog, it seems almost obligatory to have some kind of MLK Day post. Let’s call it a ritual. Thankfully, I have a few links and thoughts to share, including some of my own MLK Day rituals.

First, as I do most MLK days, today I re-listened to and re-read two speeches: “I Have a Dream” and “I Have Been to the Mountaintop”. If you haven’t read or watch them lately, go do so again. The first will remind you why MLK is our holiest civic saint, the second will remind you that sometimes life is better written than any work of fiction – how else could a man have said, on the eve before his death:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

It sends a chill through me every year. Listening to MLK also inspires me to ask of my own life, and my own research, what is this for? Not in the hokey, how do I sell this to the foundations and funding agencies way, but in the deeper sense of how does my work promote justice over injustice, freedom over tyranny, compassion over hatred. It’s a tough question, especially when so much of what I do feels like disconnected intellectual musing. But today’s as good a day as any to ask, why am I here?

Second, on MLK Day I usually recall the other philosophers and thinkers who have influenced me. The last couple years, I’ve thought of Vonnegut. Vonnegut, like myself and the high school I attended, was a humanist. Humanism, for Vonnegut, was a pretty simple proposition:

We Humanists try to behave well without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

As a not-religious sociologist, I find Vonnegut’s phrasing a lot closer to my heart (although decidedly less emotionally moving) than MLK’s rhetoric. But the differences pale compared to the similarities.

Lastly, each MLK Day brings new treats in terms of tid-bits about his life and work, or contemporary remixes of rhetorical classics. In the first category, I enjoyed a post by Ari about MLK’s turn towards more radical, less civil rights focused, economic activism (hat tip to Mark Thoma). Quoting at length from a speech MLK gave in Grosse Pointe (a rich suburb not too far from where I grew up), Eri argues that we have mostly forgotten MLK’s support of unions and his sociological analysis of the origins of violence. Here’s one of the excerpts:

“But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Ari goes on to retell how MLK Day became a national holiday, by eventually winning the support of corporations, and then asks:

I wonder what Martin Luther King would think of his eponymous day. Of the MLK lesson plan — long on heroism, patriotism, and feel-good rhetoric but short on violence, non- or otherwise — in my son’s classroom. Of the fact that his holiday’s roots in organized labor have been completely forgotten. Of the painful irony that corporate sponsorship proved key in passing the law marking his birthday.

More than that, I wonder what those sponsors would think if they were transported back to Grosse Pointe, on March 12, 1968, to hear King deliver his “Other America” speech, including the line, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” I suspect they wouldn’t recognize that Dr. King. I wonder how many of us would.

I think that my quote of the day, today, will be “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Lastly, in the popular remixes vein, my favorite auto-tuning remixers have a new video out:

I hope you enjoy it, and the rest of the day.

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