Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Inside, behind, and beyond King's "Dream"

From Toledo, IA
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; August 28, 1963 (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post concludes our reflections on chapter 3.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This massive rally is often remembered primarily for the final speech of the day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. But the organizers and other speakers had been striving and longing for this day for at least twenty years. A recent segment on Democracy Now! and an article in Dissent Magazine have helped me see more fully the radical roots of this march, which made possible King's speech. But it's been a long road for me to appreciate any of this...

From the inside out: Seeing privilege

While I have of course seen snippets from this speech many times over the course of my life, I've done what many white middle class males do with such things: I've thought, "Hmm. Good speech." - and then gone about the business of my life, with its more than adequate food and shelter, a healthy and loving family, a good education, gainful employment, more ("higher") education, more fulfilling gainful employment, capacity for leisurely pursuits, all with having no fear of ever being followed or watched or stopped and frisked or unjustly arrested because I looked "suspicious."

King's speech never grabbed me by the guts because I already had a piece of the American Dream for which he and countless others fought across this nation's history. As a child of the white middle class whose parents had worked hard to move upward from their own more modest rural upbringing, a greater portion of the American Dream came to me like a birthright.

I'm not saying that my family didn't have to work hard or we have never known hardship or lean times; no sir, not by a long shot. But self-improvement, struggle, and suffering are always relative in ways both "horizontal" and "vertical." Ours (i.e. well-off white folks') tends to be horizontal: personal, interpersonal, and surmountable. For blacks, though, from the first days of the American slave trade to the New Jim Crow, their struggle and long suffering runs far deeper and has "vertical" - structural, systemic, and sociocultural - "gravitational forces" pressing down upon them, compounding their horizontal struggles. And that kind of vertical weight doesn't go away overnight, or without a fight.

But it has taken me years of deliberate imaginative work and intentional relationship-building with people who aren't like me (racially, economically, educationally, geographically) to begin re-shaping me to have a level empathy which gives me - in an admittedly very small way - the capacity to appreciate the experience and the long struggle of African Americans in this society. As a Christian, I've come to see this particular journey as being part of the work of God in my life, removing (slowly, sometimes painfully) the log of privilege blocking my vision of those who struggle.

One virtue of my foot-dragging in reading chapter 3 is that it's now coinciding with this significant anniversary, and it's opened up interesting lines of critical thought for the occasion...

Radical-democratic roots behind the "Dream"

Within the circles I run, many have pointed out the fact that after the 1963 "Dream" speech, King became "radicalized" in that he began moving toward nonviolence and became increasingly, vocally critical of US foreign policy, particularly the war in Vietnam. This kind of turn for King had to have come from somewhere, and I want to suggest that the folks who worked for two decades to make the historic March on Washington possible, some of whom shared the podium with him that day, had a role in this shift. We get a glimpse of one somewhat indirect influence in chapter 3.

As John pointed out in his post, Coles is worried that the subject of his essay, philosopher-activist Cornel West, tends of favor voicing rather than listening when it comes to his conception of prophetic witness and intellectualism, and of West's book, Democracy Matters, Coles says that "The beacons of hope at the end of the book are all male, and West's focus is upon voices" (p. 51).

Ella Baker
Coles goes on to suggest that, for radical democrats, it is practices of "radical receptivity" - such as patient listening and gentle, curious questioning - that should be seen as at least as important and prophetic as the more vocal and provocative practices. His exemplar for such radically receptive prophetic practices is Ella Baker, early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and he suggests that it was Baker "who practiced a very different (yet an at least as effective) kind of prophetic leadership and organic intellectuality profoundly rooted in receptive relational practices that Martin Luther King Jr. barely grasped" (51). A strong claim.

He then describes the contextual differences between King and Baker as being rooted in "their different understandings of church and community" (55). He continues:
King understood church very significantly from the vantage point of a male-pastor tradition that cultivated extraordinary rhetorical skills and accented top-down leadership. Yet the young Baker was led largely by the example of a different type of voice and mode of leadership, namely that of her very active mother and the Littleton, North Carolina, community of "strong hard-working, deeply religious black people - most of them women who...pledged themselves to serve and uplift those less fortunate." (55-56, quote is reference to Barbara Ransby's book, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement).
Coles then marvelously illustrates the humble Christian dimensions of Ella Baker's formation and early work in community organizing, emphasizing as I mentioned above practices such as listening and dialogue, but also a kenotic leadership style whose purpose was the production of more leadership (rather than the holding-on or hoarding of privilege). He describes her work as that of an "insurgent intellectual"...
one that was engaged in reflective intellectual production close to the ground, in the thickets of receptive relationships, and highly suspicious of those that were produced by...their distance from such daily liturgies. (59)
Coles' accounting of Baker's approach is inspiring, and it's this kind of "organic intellectual" I strive to be here in the modest rural Midwest. So I think what he does here gives us a picture of what is both behind and perhaps points beyond King's "Dream."

A Dream For Those Who Cannot Sleep

This past Sunday, fellow Christian radical and pastor Ric Hudgens delivered a powerful sermon at his congregation, entitled "A Dream For Those Who Cannot Sleep." Here are some of his closing remarks:
The American Dream as we have known it is not big enough.

Dr. King’s Dream was as he said “deeply rooted in the American Dream” but it could not be equated with that Dream, nor could it be contained by it. We need a bigger Dream.

The American Dream is for those who can sleep well at night. [Such as I always have. -BG] But where is the Dream for those who can’t sleep? As the great poet Langston Hughes wrote “America has never been America to me.” Where is the Dream for those for whom America has never been America?

God’s freedom dream is bigger than the American Dream because it is a Dream for those who cannot sleep. God has a freedom dream for those who cannot sleep because of unemployment, housing foreclosures, and exorbitant medical bills. God has a freedom dream for people mourning the loss of loved ones to gun violence, police brutality, and racial profiling. God has a freedom dream for undocumented youth born in this country but not recognized by this country. God has a freedom dream for those who are bound by the past and needing to hear the word of divine forgiveness and be welcomed back into the community of freedom dreamers.
In closing, I want to suggest that the humble, patient, self-emptying practices of Ella Baker should be exalted as crucial virtues for both radical ecclesia and radical democracy alike. As much as the prophetic voicing of King and West are important and necessary, they can never be privileged over or against those practices of radical receptivity which Coles finds in the life and work Ella Baker. Together, these symbiotic practices of prophetic witness point us beyond the too-small American Dream toward something greater, something the Christian might see as a glimpse of God's freedom dream...

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