Martin Luther King, Jr. and "The Personal is Political"
4th is the 32nd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
in Memphis, Tennessee. This is an important date for the country and for me
personally. It was quite literally the killing of King which jolted me into the
life of activism that I am still engaged in today.
been thinking about these things over the past week or so as I've been reading
Michael Eric Dyson's book, "I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin
Luther King, Jr." Dyson makes the case that King was a great, radical,
exceptional leader, but he was also a fallible human being. His treatment of
women, in particular, left much to be desired. He was in no way a faithful
husband, and he had a hard time interacting with Black women like Ella Baker,
who was a great political leader in her own right.
was not really news to me, and I was not overly shocked to learn more details
about these weaknesses of King's, but it has made me rethink a belief I have
held for many years.
believe that "the personal is political." I believe that the way in
which we interact with other people on a person-to-person basis is ultimately as
important as our "save the world" organizing for political and
economic change. History is littered with the remains of organizations that
collapsed or turned into hollow shells because leaders of those
organizations--almost always men--got so caught up in feeding their egos or
holding onto their power that they alienated co-workers and followers. We have
by no means outgrown this problem!
believe that there is a critical need for those of us who say we are about a
different kind of society, one based upon cooperation, concern for the
environment, human rights and social justice, to reject the "values"
of this corporate, money-driven system, the individualism, the lusting after
power and wealth, the racism and sexism, and all the rest. How are we going to
win the allegiance of the tens of millions of people who must join with us if we
are not functioning in a way which demonstrates that a qualitatively higher
level of human and social development is possible?
seems to me that this is a fundamental strategic question for the progressive
movement today. This is not a country with a majority of its population living
in poverty. Although there is a large minority that is poor, and a smaller group
that is in very bad shape, the fact is that this is the wealthiest country in
the world, and some of that wealth has been "shared," grudgingly and
because of organized struggle, by the ruling elite to create a large middle
class. This reality has contributed to the marginalization of the political Left
to such an extent that for many people in this country it's almost as if the
Left didn't exit. This is not the only reason why the Left has been so marginal,
but it is a major one.
yet in area after area of life our economic/political system generates anger and
alienation. There is tremendous political discontent today. A recent poll by
Rasmussen Research asked voters to imagine an election where a third party
candidate had a legitimate chance of winning. The result: 30% of likely voters
say they would vote for a Democrat; 26% for a third party candidate and 25% for
a Republican. The previous high for third parties in the last five years, 17%,
was recorded days after the 1998 elections.
I'm wrong. Perhaps it's not essential, although of course desirable, that our
progressive movement and its leaders live personal lives consistent with
their/our ideals. If Martin Luther King, Jr. could play such a central, heroic
role in giving key leadership to the building of a massive movement for Black
Freedom, civil rights and economic justice while also engaging in
less-than-ideal personal behavior, am I expecting too much? Is it possible that
an organizationally skillful and politically progressive third party movement
could emerge with leadership that had similar, if not the same, exact kind of
weaknesses as King?
don't think so. For one thing, times have changed since King's day. King's life
ended just at the beginning point of the "second wave" women's
movement which emerged in the late 1960s. That movement came forward in large
part out of the civil rights movement as women civil rights activists
experienced the kind of sexism King was guilty of from other men who were part
of that movement. Today, it is hard to envision people with the abilities and
level of commitment of King rising to positions of national leadership unless
those individuals have taken the insights and demands of the women's movement
seriously. The progressive movement and the country as a whole have progressed
in this regard over the last 30 years.
in many ways, the women's movement at its best is a key touchstone as to whether
or not we have the possibility of fundamentally changing this society.
Significant women's leadership, particularly from working-class women and women
of color, within a progressive, popular, multi-issue movement is a tip-off as to
whether or not we are on the right track. If it's not there, the odds are very
long that we will ever bring about the kind of society Martin Luther King, Jr.
sacrificed and gave his life for, one based on love, compassion and social,
racial and economic justice at their fullest.
Ted Glick is the National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics Network and an organizer in the N.Y.C./northern N.J. area.