April 05, 2008

King, concentration camps, and Indians

Martin Luther King Jr. was more than just an advocate for African American rights. He had something to say about Native Americans too.

The prophetic anger of MLK

After 1965, the civil rights leader grew angrier over America's unwillingness to change.Perhaps nothing might surprise--or shock--white Americans more than to discover that King said in 1967: "I am sorry to have to say that the vast majority of white Americans are racist, either consciously or unconsciously." In a sermon to his congregation in 1968, King openly questioned whether blacks should celebrate the nation's 1976 bicentennial. "You know why?" King asked. "Because it [the Declaration of Independence] has never had any real meaning in terms of implementation in our lives."

In the same year, King bitterly suggested that black folk couldn't trust America, comparing blacks to the Japanese who had been interred in concentration camps during World War II. "And you know what, a nation that put as many Japanese in a concentration camp as they did in the '40s ... will put black people in a concentration camp. And I'm not interested in being in any concentration camp. I been on the reservation too long now." Earlier, King had written that America "was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race."

Such quotes may lead some to wrongly see King as anti-white and anti-American, a minister who allowed politics to trump religion in his pulpit, just as some see Wright now. Or they might say that King 40 years ago had better reason for bitterness than Wright in the enlightened 21st century. But that would put a fine point on arguable gains, and it would reveal a deep unfamiliarity with the history of the black Christian church.

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