Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King, Jr. in feminist perspective then and now

I am taking time to contemplate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on a day that has been set aside to honor him. I have made it known on my Facebook page that I believe observance of this day should mandatory for everybody.

More companies should be encouraged to close in observance of the day. On a day when the stock exchange is closed, government offices are closed, banks are closed, schools are closed -- and granted some businesses are closed, why do some still resist?

Could it be that King was a critic of the capitalist system that fuels a profit-based economy?

Maybe his ideas are just as threatening to certain people and institutions today as they were in his lifetime.

Today I was compelled to Google "Martin Luther King, Jr. and Feminism." I found an interesting paper by Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons titled: "Martin Luther King, Jr. Revisited A Black Power Feminist Pays Homage to the King."

The article was published in the fall of 2008 in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Volume 24, Number 2.

I urge you to read Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons' paper in its entirety. It can be found in the JSTOR database available at university libraries. Visit for a list of participating institutions.

In what she calls "part memoir, part historical reflection," Simmons talks about King in the context of the times in which he lived through her own personal experiences. She goes on to reexamine King through wiser eyes later in her life. Her account is truthful and frank.

"I came to know Dr. King as a volunteer and then as a field secretary in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) ..." Simmons says. "It was as an SNCC 'firebrand' that my new, less-favorable views of Dr. King were imposed upon my first glowing impressions of him as a magnificent preacher and beloved leader of the civil rights movement."

Simmons began to favor a more militant strategy to further the civil rights movement.

"My newly evolving militancy and sense of black nationalist pride permitted me to be rude in speech, arrogant in manner to Dr. King, and despairing of his ideas in person and behind his back," Simmons says.

Simmons says King was sexist, but wisely goes on to "contextualize it within the historical period." Judgments must be made in that context.

"Sexism was definitely a problem throughout all civil rights organizations. Dr. King, not surprisingly -- like most if not all men in the movement who were products of the Black Church and American culture was sexist. ... The civil rights movement was hardly a model of female inclusion in the area of leadership. Patriarchy plagued the black freedom struggle on all sides. ...All men had difficulty seeing women in leadership roles."

She goes on to say that "Kings inability to see movement women as his peers and even mentors prevented him from forging strong connections with radical black women who could have been his greatest allies in the struggle he was about to launch against economic oppression."

She is speaking here about King's "Poor People's Campaign for Jobs and Income (PPC)."

However, the wisdom of later life has prompts Simmons to say this, " ... I believe that if he had not been shot down in the prime of his life when his political and social thought was undergoing profound transformations, it is justifiable to think he would have advanced his consciousness about the social construction of gender roles and the injustice of patriarchy and sexism..."

She also expresses "shame and remorse" for her behavior in view of her "ignorance and lack of maturity at the time." Yet, there is no need .

Given the honesty, frankness, and accessibility of her paper, she is to be credited with her progressive thinking and wisdom.

We can only wonder what the world would be like today if Dr. King had lived or if he would have come aboard the women's movement.

As it stands, his "three evils" remain in place in U.S. society. They are racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.

Dr. King made the connection between these oppressions saying, "I don't believe capitalism as it is constructed (in our country) can meet the needs of poor people and that what we might need to look at is a kind of socialism, but a democratic form of socialism."

This statement is just as radical today. And it frightens people today just as it did then.

Keeping Dr. King's dream alive involves introspection as well as examination of national policies. It also involves advocating change in a nonviolent way.

King biographer Vincent Harding said King never advocated violence but, "he was urging the nation to examine itself and to correct its wrongs before it was too late."

It's still not too late, and if we truly "advocate feminism," we will continue to work toward the elimination not only of sexism, but the other oppressions associated with it.