In Memoriam: Dr. Vincent Harding

Dead men make
such convenient heroes. They
cannot rise
to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives
– Carl Wendell Himes Jr.

The esteemed historian, scholar, and civil rights and peace activist Vincent Harding passed away at the tender age of 82 this past Monday. Dr. Harding is most famous for drafting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, King’s controversial address declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet his life cannot be summed up in just that one speech.

Dr. Harding used the poem above to articulate his frustration with the way the nation had chosen to remember Dr. King. He lamented that we have forgotten the latter years of King’s life, insisting that “King live forever in the unbroken sunlight of that historic August day on the Mall…” (Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, vii). He sought to challenge this “American amnesia,” to reclaim the prophet of antiwar, nonviolence, and economic justice.

Dr. Harding’s lamentation has inspired my own scholarship on the American recollection of Martin Luther King Jr. While he answered the question of what we conveniently forget about King in order to elevate him to a national hero that affirms us rather than challenges us, I seek to answer the question of how and why. Thus, though I have met him only on a few occasions, I owe him much. I am deeply saddened that I will not be able to share my work with him on this side of eternity. Yet, through his scholarship, his activism, and his public statements, Dr. Vincent Harding will never be forgotten.

May he rest in the Peace he sought for all of humanity.

To learn more about Dr. Vincent Harding, see some of the following:


#J4TM Wringing Out Our Biases

President Obama’s very personal reflections on the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial struck a chord with me. I appreciated how he eloquently spoke to a reality that me and numerous other African-American males face too frequently in this country. There has always been and continues to be a presumption that young Black males are dangerous or even criminal. While this presumption is rooted in a history of White supremacy, we ought not be fooled into thinking that only White people participate in this presumption. If I started pointing fingers, those three fingers pointing back at me would serve as a strong indictment on my own character.

The President’s unscripted reflections gives us an opportunity for some real talk. I have not weighed in on this conversation before for a few reasons. First, out of sheer anger and disbelief about the outcome of the trial, and second, out of exasperation on the discourse surrounding the case. Particularly in the way the term racist is being abused on both sides. We can’t have thoughtful conversations and move society forward on this because race is too polarizing and we are too quick to pull the racist card out of the deck.

It all suggests to me that Richard Rorty was wrong when he declared religion to be a conversation stopper. In America, race is a conversation stopper. We can’t even consider how race may play a factor in anything because we are too afraid that it leads to a charge of racism which is the ultimate, unpardonable sin. Nor can we consider that there might be a gap between a person allowing race stereotypes to factor into their decision process and that person actually being a dyed-in-the-wool racist. It is more nuanced and complicated than that. Yet nuance is not something that we do well in this society.

So I think the President’s last recommendation is the one I am going to focus my personal attention on over the next few days. Not only am I seeking to wring out “as much bias out of myself as I can,” but I am searching for ways to better reach those who are too afraid of the implications of conceding their own social privilege to admit that their biases (our biases) may be getting in the way of social progress. Perhaps by confessing my own privileges and biases, I can help others acknowledge their own and we can move forward together as allies, rather than tread water as enemies.

MLK to Buchanan – Do You Know What Civil Disobedience Is For?

On January 23, 1979, Pat Buchanan had this to say about Martin Luther King Jr.:

To Black Americans and many whites, Dr. King was the essence of everything good about America. To millions of others, not all of them racists, he was something else: the most divisive figure in the century’s most divisive decade. A partisan who made the tactics of civil disobedience and mass demonstration the first resort of dissidents… [and] an idealog [sic] of the socialist wing of the Democratic Party.1

Today he dares to invoke Dr. King’s name and legacy in the battle against LGBT rights.

When Martin Luther King Jr. called on the nation to “live up to the meaning of its creed,” he heard an echo from a thousand pulpits. Treating black folks decently was consistent with what Christians had been taught. Dr. King was pushing against an open door. Priests and pastors marched for civil rights. Others preached for civil rights. But if the gay rights agenda is imposed, we could have priests and pastors preaching not acceptance but principled rejection.

Buchanan, who has never been a fan of Dr. King, conveniently omits the many churches and religious institutions who fought social progress on racial equality tooth and nail, in the name of religion. Those who would fight against civil recognition of gay marriage have more in common with the segregationists than the civil rights advocates.

Dr. King’s call for America to “live up to the meaning of its creed” was not simply about “treating black folk decently,” it was about guaranteeing social equality for all. Civil disobedience to promote discrimination certainly does not align with Dr. King’s ethic.

So Mr. Buchanan, if you want to call on religious folk to discriminate against my LGBT brothers and sisters, go ahead and do so. Just leave Dr. King’s name out of it.

1. Patrick Buchanan, “Some Would Not Honor Dr. King,” Chicago Tribune, 23 January 1979, B3.

How Martin Luther King Became a Conservative Cultural Icon

Forty-five years ago this week (April 4, 1968), Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a single rifleman’s bullet on a balcony at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time of his death, King was considered more social pariah than national hero. A 1966 poll showed that he had a 33% favorable to 63% unfavorable rating. Many commentators questioned his relevance after he finally decided to follow his conscience and publicly oppose the Vietnam War. Financial supporters abandoned him when he shifted justice-gaze towards the slums of Chicago where he shed light on Northern racism and economic inequality. Politicians were aghast at his pending attempt to disrupt D.C. political life with a nonviolent army of poverty stricken Americans from across the country. He was only in Memphis to support striking unionized garbage workers in their efforts to improve workplace safety and improved wages. These are hardly conservative-endorsed causes, yet King is almost universally seen as an American hero.

Throughout the course of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. opposed war, lamented the size of the American military, supported the concept of full employment, questioned the legitimacy of free-market capitalism, sought after increased spending on government social programs, and more. So how did he become a conservative cultural icon? For that, we can thank Ronald Reagan.

In August and October of 1983, after an arduous fight lasting fifteen years, Congress finally passed a bill designating the first Monday after Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (the third Monday of January) a federal holiday. On the day the Senate passed the bill, President Reagan unenthusiastically expressed at a televised press conference, “Since [Congress] seem[s] bent on making it a holiday, I believe the symbolism of that day is important enough that I would—I’ll sign that legislation when it reaches my desk.” (Congress Quarterly Weekly Report, October 12, 1983) His reluctant affirmation of the bill mirrored many (but not all) conservative politicos who saw the holiday simply as a symbolic nod to the success of the civil rights movement and out of respect for the contributions of their minority constituencies. In other words, they initially considered the holiday a “Black” holiday.

President Ronald Reagan signs the National King Holiday bill on November 2, 1983. (National Archives)

President Ronald Reagan signs the National King Holiday bill on November 2, 1983. (National Archives)

Despite his historical opposition to King and the civil rights legislation and his ambivalence towards the creation of the National King Holiday, President Reagan invited the King family, distinguished members of Congress, and several members of his to witness the signing of the King holiday bill in the Rose Garden of the White House. Rather than wallow in his ambivalence, Reagan’s signing ceremony speech would pull Martin Luther King’s legacy into a massive bear hug, transforming King from a thorn in the side of conservatives into a conservative cultural icon.

In his reflections on Dr. King, Reagan declared, “Dr, King had awakened something strong and true, a sense that true justice must be colorblind, and that among white and Black Americans, as he put it, ‘Their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom; we cannot walk alone.’” Celebrating the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the sweeping vision of “I Have a Dream,” and attributing the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act to King’s leadership, Reagan proclaimed that because of Martin Luther King Jr., “The conscience of America had been touched [and] people had begun to treat each other not as Blacks and Whites, but as fellow Americans.”

For Reagan, Dr. King struggled for a “colorblind” society that guaranteed the “freedom” of all citizens. Americans can “take pride in the knowledge that we … recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it.” Absent from Reagan’s reflections is any mention of King’s commitment to addressing economic inequality, his pacifist opposition to the Vietnam War, and any of his post ’63 activity; and with good reason. Reagan essentially sells the King Holiday to conservatives by painting King’s legacy as commiserate with conservative values. Many conservatives after Reagan would follow suit, invoking King’s name in their opposition to Affirmative Action, suggesting that King embraced a philosophy of self-help, and claiming that King wanted to change hearts, not laws. These distortions of King’s legacy have allowed conservatives to embrace King in a way they could not before Ronald Reagan created the blueprint. So, the next time Glenn Beck holds a conservative rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, or Sarah Palin tweets the content of one’s character quote on King’s birthday, or Rush Limbaugh declares that King would oppose affirmative action because it is reverse discrimination, be sure to say a word of thanks (or a curse under your breath) to President Ronald Reagan, the reason Martin Luther King Jr. is a conservative cultural icon.

Earning to Give or Renting Out Your Soul

William MacAskill, founder and president of 80,000 Hours (an ethical careers advisory service) provided interesting advice for those seeking to “make a difference” in the world. He advises us (I consider myself one who wishes to make a difference) that the best way to make a difference is to earn a lot of money, then donate a chunk of it to the most effective charities. He calls this strategy “earning to give.”

MacAskill’s reasoning is three-fold. 1) The discrepancies in earning between a high-wage earning career (say working on wall street) and one as an executive in a non profit is so vast that 50% of your $10M  potential lifetime salary is more valuable than the time you spent in your non-profit career. 2) MacAskill defines “making a difference” as doing something that would not have happened anyway. It is more likely that someone else could have accomplished what you will accomplish in your nonprofit job than it is that a normal multimillionaire would be as generous to charity as you would if you had the same amount of money. 3) The cost-effectiveness of charities vary and by controlling the capital, you can invest in the most cost-effective charities, doing the most good. For example, it is more valuable to provide 1600 people, $25 cures for trachoma, than it is to spend $40,000 training and providing a guide dog to one blind person.

As a Christian, I find MacAskill’s utilitarian approach to “making a difference” problematic. A Christian understanding of vocation relates to one’s sense of Divine calling or belief that one was made to operate in a specific field. For many, the financial considerations only tell half the story. It is about the job. Doing something that fits. Doing something that is both worthwhile and a match for one’s skill set. The bottom-line analysis breaks down because MacAskill does not consider the intrinsic value of the work for the worker, account for the potential that the individual could bring something new and innovative to the task (rather than assuming that anybody could do the job), or assess the harm that one potential does in the high-wage earning position before giving one’s money away. It is reminiscent of John D. Rockefeller’s “robber baron” mentality of making as much money as possible (as ruthlessly as possible) and being generous in philanthropy. Rockefeller did an extraordinary amount of good (including funding Spelman College), but his form of monopolistic capitalism still wrecks havoc in our liberal democracy.

Finally, MacAskill’s juxtaposition of a nonprofit job versus a job on wall street (or some other similarly high earning profession) is a bit of a misnomer. If it were really that easy to get a Wall Street job, everyone would have one. The vast majority of folks won’t earn $10M over their lifetimes, but the $2.5 million is still the higher range of middle class. In other words, most Americans would look at the income potential of a career in non-profit work and be satisfied with that financial outlook. Additionally, there is no guarantee that the worker predisposed to working for a charity would bring the intangibles necessary to be successful in the finance position. Thus one could walk into a position with the earning potential of $10M, but perform for a variety of reasons, much below that mark. What would be the point of that?

Perhaps MacAskill is right. Perhaps one ought to approach one’s vocation from a pure cost-benefit analysis. But that does not make for a fulfilling life. It seems to me that MacAskill is recommending that we rent out our souls. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew (16:26), “What does it profit if one gains the world but loses one’s soul?” I’m not convinced that giving away half of one’s millions can buy one’s soul back.

Is Acceptance of Civil Gay Marriage Now a Litmus Test for the Democrats?

Yesterday, the White House tapped The Reverend Luis Leon, pastor of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, to give the benediction to President Obama’s second inauguration. Rev. Leon replaces Reverend Louie Giglio, pastor of the Passion City Church in Atlanta, GA, who resigned earlier this week after a 15-year old sermon surfaced where he adamantly argued that Christians ought to prevent homosexuality from becoming a norm in American society with full-standing with any other “lifestyle.”

According to Presidential Inaugural Committee spokesperson Addie Whisenant, this revised selection of Rev. Leon symbolizes the idea that whoever is invited to participate in the inauguration ought to have “beliefs [that] reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans.” As someone who teaches at an Episcopal Divinity School, I applaud the choice. Inauguration day ought to be a day with limited controversy, a celebration of the possibilities of American leadership.

But, there is cause for concern. The controversy that forced Rev. Giglio to resign, cuts to the core of Democratic politics. President Obama’s election coalition (and by extension, the Democratic coalition) is made of people who support full gay rights in the form of same-sex marriage and those who oppose it. But this controversy, as well as some of the left-leaning controversy surrounding the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense suggests that a litmus test is starting to develop in the Democratic party. If one opposes same-sex marriage or has spoken anti-gay sentiments in the distant past, one is no longer welcome in the big Democratic tent.

Such a litmus test could damage the ability for those who disagree on this issue, but agree on so much more from actually working together. Rev. Giglio was invited because of his widely-celebrated work opposing human sex trafficking. The president’s invitation to him represents yet another outreach to a “friendly face” of the evangelical movement into his coalition (see. Rick Warren, 2009 inauguration). This outreach is entirely consistent with President Obama’s pathos as one who seeks to build bridges.

A litmus test on gay marriage undoes all of that. Some of my liberal friends are certain that this is a good thing. While I may agree that gay marriage is a social justice issue, I wonder whether it is prudent for democrats to make it a demarcation of who is and is not a “good” democrat. The line does need to be drawn somewhere, but what is the consequence of drawing the line here. Can we at least talk about it first?

These Neighborhoods Are Our Neighborhoods

President Obama gave a moving statement in response to the mass murder in Newton, CT. I appreciate the emotion he displayed, who wouldn’t get choked up thinking about the slaughter of innocent children. His teary, yet determined affect expresses the exact sentiment this nation ought to have: a deep sadness at such a senseless tragedy, a willingness to support the Newtown community, and a resolve to figure out how to make what is becoming an all-too frequently occurrence, less so.

There is one aspect of the President’s initial statement on Saturday that stood out to me. Here is the paragraph in full:

As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago—these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children.  And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.

At first glance, one of these things is not like the other. Newtown (CT), Happy Valley (OR), Oak Creek (WI), and Aurora (CO) all have in common senseless mass murders committed in serene locales in which people ought to “expect” to be safe. Chicago (IL) on the other hand is senseless violence, presumably by gang members in a “dangerous” locale. Quite frankly, there is less of an expectation of safety and serenity and we are not “surprised” that violence has erupted there.

This of course is not right. It is not just, fair, or responsible that any place in America has an expectation of violence. The president’s inclusion of Chicago in his narrative about senseless tragedies disrupting our nation is welcome because it lets those living in inner city environments know that they have not been forgotten or ignored on the national scene. It points to the need to figure out how to reverse the culture of violence and hopelessness that pervades pockets of American culture. Further, it suggests that the problem is multifaceted and requires a comprehensive solution.

All of these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods. None of them deserve to be forgotten or ignored as we come together to take meaningful action. And I’m glad the president can see that as well.