During this time of year, we in the media are given to expounding on what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have counseled in our era, especially about poverty and war.
But there is an aspect of what King was all about that we tend to miss, because time passes, and technology preserves and highlights public speeches more readily than the proceeds of meetings and the contents of memos. Likely, the most iconic image of King in most of our minds is the "I Have a Dream" speech, with its drama, its music, its thrill, its significance. But to study King's life is to marvel at how very much the man did from day to day.
He had a knack for a speech, like our current president. But orating was, for him, a tool. King's more significant legacy — although we can't play it back and swoon to it as we can a speech — was what he accomplished.
In that, King was highly attuned to a particular distinction: between drama and doing. In his time, already some people in his wake were losing sight of the difference between forging change and making noise. It was an easy distinction to miss: Forging change often involves making noise, after all. King knew that: In 1965 he wrote to Andrew Young reminding him, "Also please don't be too soft. It was a mistake not to march today. In a crisis we must have a sense of drama."
The problem is that in the moment, making noise is the fun part — and it can be fun, even on its own. Plus, especially if you make noise in an angry way, you can easily suppose that this, in itself, is forging change. "Getting the word out," you may call it. This was something King was ruefully aware of; he mentioned it a goodly amount. About the increasingly theatrical strain among the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, King readily declared "some recent SNCC demonstrations to be expressions of rivalry and rage, without constructive purpose."
But that trend continued, and this sort of thing paved the way for a new conception of what activism and commitment are. Now that the grand old efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its ilk are largely in the past, the historical record can even make it look as if the noise was the action — as if, just after King delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech, Southern white congressmen fell upon one another in tears, convened a special meeting and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
So here we are at a point where, with a frequency that genuinely worries me, what is presented most dramatically is received as the most important — regardless of whether it's constructive. This was not what King was about, despite the perfect examples we saw this Monday during commemorations held on the federal holiday for King's birthday.
In Harlem, N.Y., we had Rep. Charles Rangel getting the biggest hand of the day, saying, "Why don't you help me form a group of mothers whose sons murdered the sons and daughters of other mothers? It ain't no white folks down South killing our boys!" OK, so we're supposed to stop fetishizing racism. But then over in Brooklyn, same day, you had the same kind of crowd applauding writer Walter Mosley for informing us that racial categories were created and reinforced by "so-called white people" for "the express purpose of domination" of "other so-called colored races." Back to the blame game.
Besides, both Rangel's and Mosley's propositions are fragile even in themselves. The scholar, black or other, cringes hearing a statement like Rangel's, fearing that he is distracting us from thinking about "institutional racism" (e.g., the boys are shooting one another because they don't have dads). Meanwhile, if it's whites who decided that we are "black," then how come Tiger Woods and Ward Connerly get 'buked and scorned if they decide that they are not all "black"? As is often said, black people are now the main enforcers of the one-drop rule.
I submit: What elates crowds about statements like Rangel's and Mosley's is not whether they are true or whether they point the way forward. What crowds are responding to is the manner in which these things are said: the flavor, the drama, the swagger. Rangel and Mosley were, in their way, making music. But King was about making a new world.
That, for me, is King's most interesting message at this point: Performance alone does not make people less poor or less oppressed.
Following King for real: When Tavis Smiley convened yet another forum last week and posed Cornel West's question from some years ago — "What can a blues nation learn from a blues people?" — we, in the name of King, properly look beyond that sonorous phraseology and ask what will concretely come out of a sense that we "blues people" are going to "teach" America anything important. The question is how to make black people's lives better, and white people who need to buy groceries don't have to "learn" anything in order for that to happen.
Following King for real: Other people's performances are no more interesting than our own. Accordingly, we must question why what Sarah Palin thinks or doesn't think about race in America should concern us more than, for example, how to make people's lives better. When Republicans threaten to discontinue funding for shepherding ex-cons back into society — a key race issue gathering steam in New York, D.C. and elsewhere — that should concern us.
Focusing on Sarah Palin? Excuse me, but why? Indeed, you have to wonder what Dr. King would have thought about what catches our attention.
John McWhorter is a lecturer at Columbia University and a contributing editor to the New Republic.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.