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January 16, 2007

Editor’s Note: A little chit-chat about Dr. King

I caught Cornel West on Tavis Smiley’s TV show Friday night. West is a professor of religion at Princeton University, and, as Smiley described him, one of America’s great thinkers and perhaps our leading public intellectual. I love Dr. West for many reasons. He peppers his humble speech with phrases like, “What a blessing, my brother.” With his pronounced overbite, wiry facial hair, unapologetic Afro and usual attire — something like a black tuxedo — he presents an energetic and inspiring visual presence. But his words are what really matter, and he has a lot to tell us. During a discussion with Smiley that was full of compelling ideas, one phrase jumped out. Speaking of the national holiday that honors the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., West said, “there’s a lot of chit-chat about Martin every year, and Martin has been so domesticated and tamed and defamed” that we’ve seen the “Santa Clausification of the brother.” That’s pretty heavy, and it may not make much sense on its face. What he meant, I think, is that like so many figures who were controversial when alive, in death Dr. King has been relegated to warm and fuzzy icon status whose significance is now based more on his static visual image than what he actually stood for and accomplished. It lets Americans say the right words while barely stopping to ponder the actual history behind the man. In Dr. King’s case, it’s important to recall that the FBI once labeled him the most dangerous man alive. It’s important to recall that he put his life in danger to lead people who put their lives in danger while eschewing the sort of violence that was unleashed on them, in service to a profound cause. But now, as West said, the late civil rights icon “just becomes a nice little old man with a smile … not a threat to anybody, as if his fundamental commitment to unconditional love and unarmed truth does not bring to bear certain kinds of pressure to a status quo. So the status quo feels so comfortable as though it’s a convenient thing to do rather than acknowledge him as to what he was … in the market-driven world in which celebrity status operates in such a way that it tries to diffuse all of the threat and to sugarcoat and deodorize what actually is rather funky.” I don’t believe he’s saying Dr. King stank; I believe he’s saying King is now “embraced” by people who have little actual comfort level with the sort of difficult truths he brought to light. West talked about how King resisted niggerization, an American invention to keep blacks intimidated and divided. Instead, King said: “I refuse to be fearful. I refuse to hate back. I refuse to be greedy.” Instead of fear, he enacted boldness. Instead of hatred, he enacted love. Instead of greed, he enacted forgiving — the highest form of giving. That courage does warrant a national holiday, and it sets an amazing standard for all folks. Interestingly, I saw the West interview just after attending a production of “Twelve Angry Men,” a classic drama in which a 16-year-old boy is charged with killing his father. The story begins as the jurors enter the jury room, where the first vote is 11-1 for conviction. The lone holdout takes pains to say he’s not asserting the young man’s innocence, only that the prosecution’s case is so cut and dried that he’s dubious. By methodically voicing his unease, he gets the other jurors to see how easy assumptions and an overriding instinct to go with the flow can be disastrous to actual justice. Isn’t that what King stood for? One other thing I appreciate about Cornel West is his rhetorical style. He’s candid but measured, doesn’t play the blame game and places the challenge on everyone. He talks of how King really stood for sacrificing personally for a greater cause and how rare that seems today. Standing up for justice, he said, requires “people willing to pay a price, bear a burden. If you think … there’s no price to be paid, then it’s easy to slide back into conformity, complacency, and that goes hand in hand with our market-driven, narcissistic, hedonistic society where more and more people are concerned just about getting over as opposed to being a better, more decent, compassionate human being.” Well said. I hope we can all stop and think about that the next time we see Dr. King’s face smiling back from a placard. Contact the writer at cstemle@leoweekly.com