The third annual observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. passed happily enough in the nation’s capital, with the local merchants unloading their assorted junk into the hands of an eager public. It is hardly surprising that “King Day,” observed as a federal legal public holiday since 1986, has already become part of the cycle of mass indulgence through which the national economy annually revolves. Christmas itself, commemorating an event almost as important as the nativity of Dr. King, has long been notorious for its materialism and appetitive excesses, and a visit to any shopping mall will alert the consumer to the next festal occasion on the public calendar and instruct him in what ways and to what extent he is expected to turn out his pockets in its celebration. Since Dr. King, wherever he is now, has been promoted to full fellowship in the national pantheon, it is to be expected that he too must perform his office in keeping the wheels of American commerce well-greased.
What is remarkable about the King holiday, however, is that, alone among the 10 national holidays created by act of Congress, it is celebrated in other ways that are pretty much in keeping with its original purpose. While the other nine festivities are merely excuses for protracted buying and selling, three-day weekends with an attractive compadre, or orgies of eat-and-swill punctuated by football games, only the third Monday in January is the regular subject of solemn expatiations by the brahmins of the republic as to what it really means. Newspaper columnists, television commentators, and public schoolteachers—the nearest things we have to a priesthood—devote at least a week to discussing Dr. King’s life and achievements and their place in our national consciousness. Certainly they do not explore the lives of Jesus Christ, George Washington, or Christopher Columbus with such piety, nor do they usually dedicate much time to reflecting on the less anthropomorphized occasions that celebrate national independence, public thanksgiving, or remembrance of Americans fallen in war for the fatherland. Only Dr. King seems to elicit effusions from the guardians of the public tongue, and, as in the rituals of the heathen gods of eld, woe to the blasphemer who fails to bend the knee.
The fate of Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder is a case in point, though not unique. Approached at table in Duke Zeibert’s restaurant in Washington on the Friday before the official ceremonies, Mr. Snyder, a sports commentator created and employed by CBS, was asked by a local reporter for his views on the progress of blacks in professional athletics. Mr. Snyder perhaps had dined too well, and he was foolish enough to say what he really thought in response to the uninvited question. He praised the accomplishments and hard work of black athletes, made some insulting remarks about the laziness of white athletes, and suggested that the athletic prowess of blacks was due in part to their having been bred for size and strength in antebellum days, specifically for their “big thighs,” and that “they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs.” It is not known if the Greek, a professional gambler, gave odds on how long he would keep his $750,000-a-year job after uttering his inanities, but there was little time to place any bets, and probably few would have taken them. Within 24 hours Mr. Snyder was in the ranks of the unemployed.
Mr. Snyder was not the first victim to the new deity, and the practice of ruining a white person once a year in honor of Dr. King is becoming a national tradition. Last year the victim was another sports figure, Los Angeles Dodgers official Al Campanis, who was asked on ABC-TV’s Nightline about black athletic performance and wound up discoursing on the comparative buoyancy of the races when immersed in water. He too got his clock cleaned by his employers, and though the incident did not occur in connection with Dr. King’s birthday, it did happen to fall during the week of the 19th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s assassination in April 1968.
In 1986, when King Day was first celebrated after its enactment by Congress in 1983, the victim got off easy. In Montgomery County, Maryland, Mrs. Karen Collins, a part-time music teacher in a Silver Spring elementary school, made the mistake of giving her private opinion to a colleague that the country was making too much of Dr. King and that she had heard that he had been a Communist supporter and had Communist friends. Her remark was overheard by some students, who ran home to tell their parents, who alerted the local NAACP to the presence of un-American activities. Even before the NAACP invited itself to settle the matter, however, Mrs. Collins had received a reprimand from her principal, had been placed on administrative leave, transferred to another school, and required to enroll in a “human relations” course where she could learn something about the American Way.
The NAACP was not at all satisfied and demanded her dismissal. “Any person who says Dr. King was a Communist is either maliciously racist or uninformed,” said Roscoe Nix, president of the local chapter. Actually, it was never certain exactly what Mrs. Collins had said. She denied saying that King was a Communist, and after her disciplining, school superintendent Wilmer S. Cody acknowledged that “Although her exact words are still in dispute, she did express some dissatisfaction about the school system’s special program concerning Martin Luther King’s birthday.” Mrs. Collins appears to have kept her job, but the god whom she blasphemed had tasted blood.
If the reader thinks I exaggerate the metaphor of King as god, consider the demand in 1979 (and since) to add Dr. King’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” to the Bible. At the third annual conference of the Black Theology Project in 1979, a proposal to add the letter as another epistle in the New Testament was approved by the convention of about 40 black ministers, theologians, and lay people, and the Rev. Muhammed Kenyatta, instructor in sociology at Haverford College, held that “We believe God worked through Dr. Martin Luther King in that jail in Birmingham in 1963 to reveal His holy word.” The pious sociologist also noted that “people generally do not realize that the process of deciding what is or is not Holy Scripture has been an ongoing one.”
If the thirst of the new god were slaked only by the ritual slaughter of schoolteachers and sports commentators. Dr. King’s apotheosis might actually represent a step forward for the country, but evidence mounts that more is being demanded. King Day in fact represents a revolution in our national mythology, a transformation that seeks to delegitimize the symbols of American history and national identity and to redefine the meaning of the American Republic—perhaps even the meaning of the Christian faith. This at least is the explicit understanding of the holiday that the dominant molders of public opinion articulate every year in their ceremonial ruminations. Writing in the New York Times on January 18 of this year, Vincent Harding, professor of Religion and Social Transformation at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, rejected the notion that the King holiday commemorates merely “a kind, gentle and easily managed religious leader of a friendly crusade for racial integration.” Such an understanding, he writes, would “demean and trivialize Dr. King’s meaning,” and the higher truth of King Day is made of sterner stuff. “The Martin Luther King of 1968,” writes Mr. Harding,
was calling for and leading civil disobedience campaigns against the unjust war in Vietnam. Courageously describing our nation as “the greater purveyor of violence in the world today,” he was urging us away from a dependence on military solutions. He was encouraging young men to refuse to serve in the military, challenging them not to support America’s anti-Communist crusades, which were really destroying the hopes of poor nonwhite peoples everywhere.
This Martin Luther King was calling for a radical redistribution of wealth and political power in American society as a way to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, jobs, education and hope for all of our country’s people.
Roger Wilkins, civil rights activist and now a Senior Fellow at the far-left Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, had some similar thoughts about the meaning of Dr. King’s legacy in the Washington Post, and similar interpretations of the man and the holiday could be reproduced from the major media of public opinion for every year since the holiday was created.
To be sure, the use of the King holiday to legitimize the left’s long march through American institutions is not the only meaning attributed to it. At the time of its enactment by Congress, various rationales were offered by liberals and conservatives alike: that the holiday was merely a celebration of the personal virtues of a man of courage and vision, that it honored the national rejection of racial bigotry, or that it was a holiday for American blacks, who, it was patronizingly said, “needed their own hero,” much as children in a restaurant need their own menu. Yet these are not the presiding apologiae for the holiday, nor were they at the time it was adopted; and the radical interpretation of Dr. King and his legacy is both the dominant as well as the more accurate version.
The objective meaning of the King holiday—the actual meaning independent of what its sponsors thought they meant or what some of its celebrants think they mean now—has little to do with the renunciation of Crossburnings and lynch parties or even of less malevolent incarnations of Jim Crow. To be sure, a nation that honors Dr. King and his legacy renounces such manifestations of racial inequality, but it also must renounce all forms of inequality, racial or other, because if all men are indeed equal, then it is absurd to say that only some forms of inequality are evil. If, as Dr. King understood it, the Declaration of Independence is a “promissory note”—not merely declarative of national independence but also imperative of social reconstruction—then the delegitimization of the traditional symbols, values, and institutions of America is not only in order but also long overdue, and the radical reconstruction of American society is not only a legitimate goal but also the principal legitimate goal of our national endeavors.
Dr. King understood this well himself, expressing it in the millenarian imagery he loved and used so effectively—”I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plains, and the crooked places shall be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Dr. King, of course, seldom troubled to inquire into the sources of his dream, and today it occurs to no one to ask why his dreams should prevail over the less grandiose dreams of others. Like all charismatic prophets, he was the fount of his own authority, and his private visions were intended to become law for lesser men.
Among the several hills and mountains that await lowering by the new god and his gnostic bulldozers is the tradition, common among white Southerners, of displaying the Confederate flag in places of honor. Some Southern states, Alabama and South Carolina in particular, still fly the Stars and Bars over their state capitols, while the official flags of several other Southern states retain its St. Andrew’s Cross design in one way or another. The NAACP has recently decided that the flag must go and has given the project priority in its current legislative agenda, and innumerable Southern schools already have been obliged to give up the flag as the symbol of their local football teams, along with the playing of “Dixie,” calling the team “The Rebels,” and other traditional usages distinctive of Southern cultural identity.
In Alabama, state Rep. Thomas Reed threatened to tear down the flag over the statehouse if it were not removed. It wasn’t, and Gov. Guy Hunt had the local head of the NAACP arrested when he clambered over the fence with his merry band of icon-smashers. Alabama Rep. Alvin Holmes readily compares the Confederacy to Nazi Germany and instructs the people of his state, “They need to forget about the Confederacy.” Earl Shinhoster, head of the southeastern division of the NAACP, says of the flags, “They’re racist symbols. . . . These flags stand for racism, divisiveness and oppression” and also for “defiance and resistance to school desegregation.”
Columnist Carl Rowan, who seldom declines to dance to the NAACP’s tune, compares the flag to the Nazi swastika and writes, “Show me a guy who rides around with Confederate flags flying on his front fenders, and I’ll show you someone who thinks the Civil War still goes on. I’ll give you a racist who thinks that it is only a matter of time before this nation makes white supremacy its official policy and returns to slavery, with black people the God-designated hewers of wood and drawers of water.” Mr. Rowan apparently has never had a dream of a day when men would not be judged by the color of their front fenders.
But the fact that many Southerners (and some non-Southerners) regard the Confederate flag as a symbol of things other than racism—Southern cultural identity, sacrifice for a cause, an interpretation of the Constitution, or simply ancestral piety—does not really help. Mr. Shinhoster, Mr. Rowan, Mr. Reed, and Mr. Holmes all are correct that the Confederate flag symbolizes a cause that was defeated in 1865 and which is not compatible with the world view symbolized by Dr. King’s holiday. If, as a nation, we are going to honor Dr. King as an official hero, then we cannot also continue to honor the Confederate flag and the political and cultural identity that is the main content of its symbolism.
It is merely a matter of time before the Confederate flag is surrendered, along with local statues of Confederate veterans and heroes, “Dixie,” and most other memorials of antebellum civilization. Their passing may not be a cause of mourning among many outside the South (or many within the South, for that matter), but the same logic that compels their abandonment reaches further. The three most prominent monuments in Washington, DC, are those dedicated to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Is there a schoolchild in the United States today who does not know that the first two were slaveowners? Is there any literate person in America who does not know that none of the three was a racial egalitarian, that every one of them uttered statements that make Jimmy the Greek sound like an ACLU lawyer? The same argument that drives Mr. Snyder from his low but honest trade and pulls down a banner commemorating the last stand of a desperate people will demolish the obelisk and temples that memorialize the major statesmen of the American nation.
Nor is it merely the physical symbols of the old America that are shattered. Last May, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall proclaimed in a public speech that he could not “find the wisdom, foresight and sense of justice exhibited by the framers” of the U.S. Constitution “particularly profound.” Because they did not bow to the egalitarian and universalist idols in the shrines where Justice Marshall has worshiped all his life and because they failed to include blacks and women in the Constitution, the document they drafted was “defective from the start.” No doubt it is astonishing that an associate justice of the Supreme Court could say that the fundamental law of the country, which it is his business and his duty to interpret, is inherently flawed, but the Justice merely forces us up another rung on the ladder. We forfeited the right to revere the Constitution, the governmental principles and mechanisms it established, and the men who wrote it when we put Dr. King into the pantheon. The federalism, rule of law, states’ rights, limits on majority rule, checks and balances, and separation of powers that characterize the Constitution all are incompatible with the full blossoming of the egalitarian democracy that Dr. King envisioned and which is the completion of the radical reconstruction to which his holiday commits us.
Political symbols in the form of the Confederate flag, anthems such as “Dixie” and “Maryland, My Maryland,” and the Constitution itself are not the only roots to be pulled up, however. Last year, the Rev. Jesse Jackson led a protest march at Stanford University in one of the more explicit demonstrations against the humanities curriculum of the school, giving the chant, “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western culture’s got to go.” This year the faculty senate of the university considered a proposal to abandon a required course on “Western Culture” and to replace it with one entitled “Cultures, Ideas and Values.” The latter contained no core list of assigned readings, and the only requirement was that professors include in their assignments “works by women, minorities, and persons of color” and emphasize “the last six to eight centuries in particular.” One alternative course, developed by Prof. Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, required such texts as Black Elk Speaks, “Ain’t I a Woman,” W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Frantz Fanon, and those long-neglected Third World persons of color, Herbert Marcuse and Karl Marx. Whatever merits such writers might have over the ancient, medieval, and modern classics of the West, it should be clear that the alternative curriculum was intended as part of the radical reconstruction of the American mind and the extirpation of the philosophical roots of Western predominance. The demand for the change at Stanford, according to news reports, was led by black, Hispanic, and Asian students, who denounced the traditional curriculum as a “year-long class in racism.”
The point, of course, is not that the establishment of the King holiday makes the extirpation of the traditional symbols of American and Western civilization inevitable—anti-American and anti-Western movements founded on militant egalitarian universalism are powerful forces and would make gains regardless of the holiday—but that, once the United States, through its national government, chose to adopt Dr. King as an official hero, neither the American people nor their leaders have any legitimate grounds for resisting the logic and dynamic of such forces and the radical reconstruction of American society that is implicit in them. It is one thing to say that Dr. King was a great man and a great American, a man whose personal courage and vision, despite his human flaws, errors, and enthusiasms, challenged lesser men of both races and forced them to confront evils, falsehoods, and obsolete ways. It is quite another to say, as the U.S. government does say in creating a legal public holiday for him, that Martin Luther King Jr. was the most important American who ever lived, at least the peer of George Washington, the Father of his country, the only American in history to have his birthday made a national holiday, the man who is now first in the hearts of his countrymen. Conservatives, some of whom like Reps. Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich voted for the King holiday in 1983, may devise whatever clever rationales for supporting it they can imagine, but Mr. Harding’s understanding of the meaning of King’s career is far closer to the truth. In any case, aside from obligatory genuflections to King by neoconservatives, “cultural conservatives,” and the adherents of Mr. Gingrich’s “Conservative Opportunity Society,” I know of not a single serious, sustained effort by those on the contemporary American right to substantiate their endorsement of the holiday or of any serious argument why conservatives should honor Dr. King at all. If there are valid reasons why we should do so, we do not hear them. What we do hear are sermons from apostles such as Mr. Harding and company, most of whom can press a far more persuasive claim to Dr. King’s legacy than conservatives of any description.
That legacy, as its keepers know, is profoundly at odds with the historic American order, and that is why they can have no rest until the symbols of that order are pulled up root and branch. To say that Dr. King and the cause he really represented is now part of the official American creed, indeed the defining and dominant symbol of that creed—which is what both houses of the United States Congress said in 1983 and what President Ronald Reagan signed into law shortly afterwards—is the beginning of a new order of the ages in which the symbols of the old order and the things they symbolized can retain neither meaning nor respect, in which they are as mute and dark as the gods of Babylon and Tyre, and from whose cold ashes will rise a new god, leveling their rough places, straightening their crookedness, and exalting every valley until the whole earth is flattened beneath his feet and perceives the glory of the new lord.