One should not let the public commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr., pass unremarked. I assume that most readers here know what they are commemorating — a historic step forward for racial justice, along with a legacy of more radical hopes, including in the area of anti-imperialism and economic justice, that were tragically unfulfilled.
That is what we commemorate. Yet what do “they” commemorate, what is the social order or “big Other” commemorating when they enshrine Martin Luther King as a public hero? I would venture to say that they are commemorating above all his failures, defining them as the outer limit of possibility. To those who say, as Katie Grimes at Women in Theology reminds us, that racism continues to poison life in America — well, they say, you had Martin Luther King. To those who claim that war and capitalism are part of the same complex of injustice as racism, they say that over-extending his message is what discredited Martin Luther King and ultimately got him killed.
Above all, they say: we gave you formal equality and canonized the man who forced us to do so — now can we please not talk about this any more? Yet things are not quite so fargone as that. Despite their formidable power, despite all the efforts of domestication and neutralization they’ve devoted to it, they can’t fully control the meaning of such a powerful symbol. We should be glad that this date is on the calendar, not so that we can passively honor that symbol but so that we can continue to struggle over its meaning.