Considering History: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Legacies of Critical Patriotism

This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present. 

Over the half-century since his tragic assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. has gradually become one of those figures whose legacy is claimed on behalf of numerous positions and perspectives. Whatever the goals of those competing contemporary claims, it’s fair to say that any of them risks turning King and the Civil Rights Movement into images and icons rather than a multi-layered historical figures and events. The Martin Luther King Day holiday offers an important moment to step back from those trends and remember the histories themselves and the lessons they provide.

One of the most important such historical lessons is the central role of civil disobedience in King’s actions throughout the Civil Rights Movement. King’s emphasis on civil disobedience was inspired in part by his engagement with earlier models of that form of activism, including Henry David Thoreau’s war tax resistance and his essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849) and Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership of the movement for Indian independence.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr at a press conference
Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference, June 8, 1964 (Library of Congress)

But his emphasis on civil disobedience also locates King within the long tradition of African-American critical patriots. Critical patriotism as a concept challenges traditional definitions of patriotism as simply a celebration of the nation and support of the government.

Earlier this month, the tagline for a Washington Post article on the role of the journalist in times of war succinctly illustrated that narrative of traditional patriotism: “Are you a journalist first or an American first? With conflict looming, an old question about patriotism is raised anew.” In this vision, to be a patriotic American is to support the nation and express that support by participating in shared communal celebrations such as the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance.

That celebratory form of patriotism is often associated with phrases like “Love it or leave it,” with the idea that if one does not share such a perspective, one is both unpatriotic and undeserving of being part of the national community. But in a striking quote from his essay collection Notes of a Native Son (1955), James Baldwin, King’s contemporary and one of the era’s most eloquent and vital literary and cultural voices, models a contrasting vision of both the love of one’s country and patriotism. “I love America more than any other country in the world,” Baldwin writes, “and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Photo of James Baldwin
James Baldwin (Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress)

That critical form of patriotism has been exemplified by many figures throughout American history, but African Americans have a particularly rich legacy of critical patriotism. “It is black people who have been the perfecters of this democracy,” argues journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones in the introductory essay for the 1619 Project, the August 2019 New York Times Magazine public scholarly work she initiated and directed. Seen through this lens, for example, histories of slave resistance and revolt comprise not just quests for individual and collective freedom, but efforts both to force the nation to grapple with its failings and to move it closer toward its ideals of “liberty and justice for all.”

One of the most influential voices of critical patriotism, Frederick Douglass, modeled those efforts in his speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” (1852). Invited to speak at a Rochester, New York celebration of that holiday, Douglass offers instead a potent critique of that occasion:

Photo of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass (Library of Congress)

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? … This Fourth of July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn. (Douglass’ emphasis).

Douglass goes further, arguing that it is precisely such critique which is required:

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

And he ends by making clear his patriotic purpose:

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country…I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.

The 1619 Project levies its own critiques of 1776 and our celebration of the Revolution, and as a result has become in recent months the subject of extended critiques in its own right, including attacks that have labeled it “unpatriotic” and “anti-American.” But like Douglass, King, and so many others, the Project expresses the two interconnected layers to critical patriotism:

  1. highlighting the manifold historical moments in which the nation has failed to live up to those ideals
  2. remembering and carrying forward the work of the figures and communities that have challenged those shortcomings and sought to move the nation closer toward the “more perfect union” envisioned in the Constitution’s Preamble

Another contemporary figure who has been frequently labeled as unpatriotic is Colin Kaepernick. In an August 2016 ESPN piece published shortly after Kaepernick began his controversial national anthem protests, his fellow NFL quarterback Drew Brees argued, “I disagree. I wholeheartedly disagree…it’s an oxymoron that you’re sitting down, disrespecting that flag that has given you the freedom to speak out.” Brees’s comments concisely illustrate how many Americans equate patriotism with demonstrating “respect for the flag” (and often, in critiques of Kaepernick, “support for the troops”) by participating fully and unequivocally in communal celebrations like standing for the national anthem.

Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem on a football field's sidelines.
Colin Kaepernick (7) kneels alongside teammate Eric Reid during the national anthem, September 12, 2016. (Photo by Bruce Gordon/UPI/Alamy Stock Photo)

Yet Kaepernick chose to kneel after consulting with former NFL player and Green Beret Nate Boyer over what form of protest would be most respectful to American veterans and servicemen and women. And in his public statements he linked that protest to both layers of a critically patriotic perspective mentioned above: highlighting the nation’s shortcomings (“That’s something that this country stands for: freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now”); and seeking to move the nation closer to its ideals (“To me this is something that has to change and when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country, is representing the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand”).

Kaepernick’s protest, like the 1619 Project, are open to response and debate. But labeling such efforts as unpatriotic reveals a limiting vision of patriotism as simply and solely the celebratory form. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let’s remember an alternate, critical form of American patriotism, one carried forward by both King and these contemporary voices.

Featured image: Martin Luther King Jr. (Library of Congress)

Five Things You Didn’t Know About the “I Have a Dream” Speech

Few words echo through history with the conviction and power of the “I Have a Dream” speech, given by Martin Luther King, Jr. 55 years ago today. Frequently ranked as the top speech in American history by polls and scholars, the address served as the defining moment of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King and other organizers mounted the march in support of civil rights legislation initiated by President John F. Kennedy. All of that could be considered common knowledge; here are a few things that you might not know about the speech and the events surrounding it.

The Speech.

1. It Wasn’t King’s First “Dream” Speech

When you look back at Dr. King’s oratorical history, it’s obvious that he liked to use dream allusions and imagery. It’s not difficult to understand why, as the civil rights struggle is essentially a dream of equality. King used that theme in a speech he gave to the NAACP in 1960 called “The Negro and The American Dream” in which he called America “a dream yet unfulfilled.” The speech emphasized that contributions that black Americans had already made and could continue to make and decried institutional racism, noting, “The primary reason for uprooting racial discrimination from our society is that it is morally wrong. It is a cancerous disease that prevents us from realizing the sublime principles of our Judeo-Christian tradition. It relegates persons to the status of things.” King would use the “dream” concept in further speeches in North Carolina in 1962 and Detroit in 1963, among other occasions.

2. The Speech Caught the Attention of the FBI

J. Edgar Hoover sits in a chair with folded hands
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ran operations targeting activists throughout the 1950s and 1960s. (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

From 1956 to 1971, the FBI ran a series of operations that sought to dismantle domestic political groups. The umbrella name was COINTELPRO, which was derived from Counter Intelligence Program. Although the projects began by targeting the Communist Party in the United States, they expanded widely and involved infiltration, harassment, and, at times, violence directed against groups as diverse as the civil rights movement, feminist organizers, the Black Panther Party, the KKK, Puerto Rican independence activists, and more. King himself was a specific and frequent target of investigations and wiretaps as some people inside the Bureau viewed him as subversive. In Tim Weiner’s 2012 book, Enemies: A History of the FBI, Weiner offers a quote from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in the wake of the “Dream” speech in which he says, “We must mark [King] now if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.” The operation was overtly halted in 1971 after it was exposed by the activist group the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI.

3. It Made History in 17 Minutes

The speech itself took King 17 minutes to deliver. It has an official count of 1,667 words. That’s just over six times longer than Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” which is widely considered King’s model for “I Have A Dream.”

Marble marker on the Lincoln Memorial's steps that read 'I Have a Dream"
This marble marker commemorates that spot on which King stood to deliver the speech at the Lincoln Memorial. (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

4. The Speech Had Other Unshakable Lincoln Connections

The opening of the “I Have A Dream” speech includes the words “Five score years ago,” followed by a direct reference to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that freed all the enslaved people in the south. Slavery officially ended in the United States with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Of course, the speech was delivered at the incredibly appropriate location of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Today, a marble marker on the steps memorializes the occasion.

5. The Speech Immediately Changed King’s Life

Martin Luther King, Jr. on the cover of Time magazine
King was recognized as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1963. (Cover art by Robert Vickrey; ©2018 Time, Inc.)

Scholars, journalists, and politicians have long discussed what the speech meant for the overall civil rights movement and what it continues to mean to people today. The immediate aftereffect for King is that it launched him into the stratosphere of political leadership in America. Not that he hadn’t already made an enormous reputation for himself, but in the time that followed, King became Time’s Man of the Year for 1963 and the youngest person awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Though his life was unfortunately ended less than five years after delivering the speech, his legacy has proven immortal. The man is gone, but his dream lives.