MLK and Identity Politics | Sojourners

MLK and Identity Politics

The 40th anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination - April 4, 1968 - will soon be upon us. As I remember Dr. King against the backdrop of this 2008 presidential election cycle, I reflect on what a brilliant political strategist he was. He was able to bring corporations to the point of acquiescence without resorting to violence or bribery. He was able to pass legislation that changed the daily lives of not only blacks but also women, people of faith, and immigrants - without ever being elected to public office or attempting to buy political influence. He was able to garner and leverage the attention of the entire international community on behalf of America's poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised - without ever being appointed to an ambassadorship or other high-profile international post. He was able to remind U.S. citizens what a democracy was and to engender a sense of moral responsibility that, more than 40 years later, challenges us to be the good we want to see in the world. King was a political genius.

With a vision this grand, one would think that the lion's share of King's work would have been on the national and international stage, yet somehow King expected to bring all this about by local, contextual, direct action: organizing to gain political access and self-determination for Blacks, advocating on behalf of unemployed Appalachian whites, striking with sanitation workers. I believe his ability to accomplish each of these things was predicated on a very simple, but profound realization: All politics are identity politics. The question is: whom does one choose to identify with?

We must understand that King didn't identify with whom he did because he had to. King received early admittance into Morehouse College at age 15. He had secured his doctorate by the age of 26. From Boston University, he could have gone any number of places, but he chose to return to the South - the Deep South - the hot-bed of racial tension in America in 1953. This became a habit that he continued to practice all his life. He would position himself in the mist of injustice and turmoil, and though it did not serve him personally, he would stand in solidarity with the marginalized, giving voice to their plight. This was King's identity politics.

Nowadays, when we hear the talking heads in the media discussing identity politics, they talk about groups that share what the privileged like to term "special interests" - Blacks, homosexuals, Muslims, women, the disabled, veterans, immigrants, etc. - as if the interests of these people groups are somehow outside or beyond the mainstream. What is never discussed is that the interests of the already privileged are no less specialized and linked to their identity as well.

Yet King never got caught up into pitting one group's interest against another. He took his cue from Jesus. Jesus consistently chose to identify with those who were oppressed, the captive, the outsider, the poor, the sick, the voiceless. His represented an others-interested politics, an others-interested identity. And his way turns our typical identity politics on its head.

We are admonished daily, at times even from the pulpit, to vote and to seek our own so-called "enlightened" self-interest. Yet I can't recall one story from the biblical narrative in which a situation was improved or resolved by the protagonist attending more carefully to his or her own self-interest.

In his parable of "The Reckoning" (Matt 25:31-46), Jesus tells of those who are rewarded for feeding, clothing, sheltering, and freeing him. They responded to their good fortune with bewilderment: "Lord, when did we ever see you hungry, needy, a stranger, or in prison?" And Jesus announces, "Insomuch as you've done it unto the least of these my brethren, you've done unto me." Even in judgment, Jesus chooses to identify with all of humanity. I can imagine King sitting in his study reading this and saying like a good-ol' Baptist preacher, "If it was good enough for my Jesus, it's good enough for me!"

So in this politically charged season, when race and gender and ideology are, as we have seen already, apt to become weapons in a war for the hearts and minds and hopes and dreams of all U.S. citizens, all politics remain identity politics - but that doesn't mean we have to pit our identity against the identity of another. In the spirit of King - and Jesus before him - we can choose to identify with more than just ourselves. We too can be both privileged and unprivileged, black and white, Asian and Latino, Muslim and Jew, Christian and Pagan, rich and poor, citizen and immigrant, national and international, public and private, veterans and peacemakers, Republican and Democrat, homosexual and unborn, blue collar, white collar, and no collar.

We can know each other's suffering, be acquainted with each other's grief, and work on each other's behalf to heal the hurts that have for too long divided the human family and robbed us of the solidarity that is, perhaps, our only hope of a brighter tomorrow.

Melvin Bray is a devoted husband, committed father, learner, teacher, writer, storyteller, lover of people, connoisseur of creativity, seeker of justice, and believer in possibilities. As founder of Kid Cultivators, he lives, loves, and dreams with friends in Atlanta, Georgia.

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