Martin Luther King and “The Personal is Political”

April 4th is the 32nd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. This is an important date for the country and for me personally. It was quite literally the killing of King which jolted me into the life of activism that I am still engaged in today.

I’ve been thinking about these things over the past week or so as I’ve been reading Michael Eric Dyson’s book, “I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.” Dyson makes the case that King was a great, radical, exceptional leader, but he was also a fallible human being. His treatment of women, in particular, left much to be desired. He was in no way a faithful husband, and he had a hard time interacting with Black women like Ella Baker, who was a great political leader in her own right.

This was not really news to me, and I was not overly shocked to learn more details about these weaknesses of King’s, but it has made me rethink a belief I have held for many years.

I believe that “the personal is political.” I believe that the way in which we interact with other people on a person-to-person basis is ultimately as important as our “save the world” organizing for political and economic change. History is littered with the remains of organizations that collapsed or turned into hollow shells because leaders of those organizations–almost always men–got so caught up in feeding their egos or holding onto their power that they alienated co-workers and followers. We have by no means outgrown this problem!

I believe that there is a critical need for those of us who say we are about a different kind of society, one based upon cooperation, concern for the environment, human rights and social justice, to reject the “values” of this corporate, money-driven system, the individualism, the lusting after power and wealth, the racism and sexism, and all the rest. How are we going to win the allegiance of the tens of millions of people who must join with us if we are not functioning in a way which demonstrates that a qualitatively higher level of human and social development is possible?

It seems to me that this is a fundamental *strategic* question for the progressive movement today. This is not a country with a majority of its population living in poverty. Although there is a large minority that is poor, and a smaller group that is in very bad shape, the fact is that this is the wealthiest country in the world, and some of that wealth has been “shared,” grudgingly and because of organized struggle, by the ruling elite to create a large middle class. This reality has contributed to the marginalization of the political Left to such an extent that for many people in this country it’s almost as if the Left didn’t exit. This is not the only reason why the Left has been so marginal, but it is a major one.

And yet in area after area of life our economic/political system generates anger and alienation. There is tremendous political discontent today. A recent poll by Rasmussen Research asked voters to imagine an election where a third party candidate had a legitimate chance of winning. The result: 30% of likely voters say they would vote for a Democrat; 26% for a third party candidate and 25% for a Republican. The previous high for third parties in the last five years, 17%, was recorded days after the 1998 elections.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps it’s not essential, although of course desirable, that our progressive movement and its leaders live personal lives consistent with their/our ideals. If Martin Luther King, Jr. could play such a central, heroic role in giving key leadership to the building of a massive movement for Black Freedom, civil rights and economic justice while also engaging in less-than-ideal personal behavior, am I expecting too much? Is it possible that an organizationally skillful and politically progressive third party movement could emerge with leadership that had similar, if not the same, exact kind of weaknesses as King?

I don’t think so. For one thing, times have changed since King’s day. King’s life ended just at the beginning point of the “second wave” women’s movement which emerged in the late 1960s. That movement came forward in large part out of the civil rights movement as women civil rights activists experienced the kind of sexism King was guilty of from other men who were part of that movement. Today, it is hard to envision people with the abilities and level of commitment of King rising to positions of national leadership unless those individuals have taken the insights and demands of the women’s movement seriously. The progressive movement and the country as a whole *have* progressed in this regard over the last 30 years.

Indeed, in many ways, the women’s movement at its best is a key touchstone as to whether or not we have the possibility of fundamentally changing this society. Significant women’s leadership, particularly from working-class women and women of color, within a progressive, popular, multi-issue movement is a tip-off as to whether or not we are on the right track. If it’s not there, the odds are very long that we will ever bring about the kind of society Martin Luther King, Jr. sacrificed and gave his life for, one based on love, compassion and social, racial and economic justice at their fullest.