Given my post earlier on Religious Freedom Day yesterday, I would be entirely remiss if I did not also acknowledge the observance today of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The actual date of his birth was January 15, 1929, but the date celebrated in his honor in the U.S. is the third Monday in January each year; this holiday was enacted by legislation on November 2, 1983 by then-president Ronald Reagan, and the first official such observance occurred on January 20, 1986. I had not realized how relatively recent the holiday is–I remember celebrating Dr. King’s legacy as early as the second grade in school, which would have been about 1983/1984…but, history is what it is, and apparently there was no official holiday attached to such remembrances at that time, even though it would have been a matter of public note due to the enactment of the legislation that year.
King’s was a very sadly short life, as he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 at the age of only 39. However, his legacy will (hopefully) be everlasting, in terms of the essential role he played in the civil rights movement and the various results of it (however frowned upon by some people they may still be) in the U.S. and worldwide since then. The Wild Hunt blog today paid tribute to him in remembering his stance on religious freedom, and T. Thorn Coyle also gave homage to Dr. King for his outspoken peace activism in relation to the Vietnam War, and more generally.
There is something of a “local” relevance to Dr. King in terms of everyday political affairs: King County, the county in Washington State which includes Seattle, was re-named after him in 1986 (though not officially by the state until 2005), in honor of him; it was originally called King County after William R. King, first vice-president of Franklin Pierce. Of Dr. Martin Luther King’s various roles, recognitions, and his great importance in terms of civil rights activism, peace and justice, and the nonviolent forms of civil disobedience that he perfected, perhaps his role as one of the greatest twentieth century orators, on par with Cicero and Fronto in Roman history, is that which will be remembered (even if not under those specific terms) by many Americans, who will see and hear and read his “I Have a Dream” speech–a speech often quoted and even in many cases wrongly appropriated by certain figures–on this day and throughout the year.
Dr. King certainly deserves every honor, praise, and remembrance of him that he is given for a variety of reasons. But, he is not the Ekklesía Antínoou Sanctus of the subject line above. Instead, I wish to speak a little bit about an influence and former friend of Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, who has been a Sanctus since 2009.
A fellow civil rights activist, the techniques of nonviolent resistance that were famously employed by Dr. King were made known to him by Bayard Rustin, which he learned directly from Gandhi in India. He was arrested during World War II for being a pacifist and resisting the draft, and served time for this; he also protested against British colonial rule in India. He was an accomplished tenor vocalist, and made a small number of recordings. He had a variety of accomplishments in social justice and activism; but, what ended up making him a definite candidate for recognition by our group was the fact that not only was he openly gay himself, but he was an ardent gay advocate up until the end of his life in 1987. It was his dedication to gay and lesbian equality and civil rights that caused a variety of people, including Dr. King, to distance themselves from him. In a speech he gave in 1986, he made an equation between the oppression of African American people in the past in the U.S., and gay people in that time, in terms that would have made many uncomfortable then, and still do today, as far as choice of words are concerned. In fact, this equation between racial equality and GLBTQI equality still makes many civil rights leaders uncomfortable today. Rustin was born on March 17, 1912, and died on November 24, 1987.
We will remember him again on those days, certainly, but he deserves to be remembered today as well, not only for his influences on Dr. King, but because it is important to remember that no movement in the U.S. has ever been a univocal movement, and that even the most laudable and wonderful people like Dr. King had their blind-spots and their biases. We can pay heed to a person’s virtues and their positive accomplishments while not giving them a free pass on their faults, and can support a person’s legacy without supporting every aspect of their political, religious, and ideological viewpoint. No, I am not being a nay-sayer on Dr. King’s worthiness–in fact, far from it–but instead I’m making the point that we should not (if you will excuse the term) whitewash a person’s history and not remember certain aspects of it simply because it is more comfortable socially or intellectually for us to do so.
So, remember Dr. King; but also remember all of those, both known and unknown, who supported him and influenced him positively, and with whom he disagreed over other issues. Peace, racial equality, and religious freedom are certainly all desirable goals worthy of pursuing, supporting, and for which to actively campaign, but they are hollow gains if they do not also include freedom for all people in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity.