I have asked Gary Forrester and Alexandra Dumitrescu where did they place Martin Luther King Jr. with respect to the cultural currents of his time.
The exchange that ensued was very interesting to follow. While Gary grounds Dr. King in his times and political context, as expected from a New Zealander who grew up in America in the King years, himself passionate about minorities rights, Alexandra expresses the view of a later generation, raised on another continent, as she looks at the personal dimension of MLK’s life and at the universality of his message.
Gary Forrester: A good question. I think he was a modernist. He died in 1968. He didn’t really get into postmodern sensibility, but on the other hand was part of that great postmodern aspect of giving voice to those who were previously dispossessed and disenfranchised; like the feminists of the 1960s.
So he was by nature a modernist (heavy belief in the grand narratives, faith in the system ultimately to do the right thing after fighting the good fight), but by action he was an early (and not well-developed, because he didn’t have the chance to be) postmodernist. On the cusp, I’d say. Perhaps a little bit of each: mostly modern to his core, but tilting in the direction of the postmodern.
This raises the question as to where he sits with metamodernism, because as Seth Abramson pointed out metamodernism doesn’t have to be limited chronologically to the early 2000s. Just as Duchamp in the 1920s was an early postmodernist before postmodernism even existed, there are people who were metamodernist before the word was coined.
Alexandra Dumitrescu: Like William Blake or Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King was a man of his times and a visionary. Although he was born 85 years ago (on January 15, 1929, and was assassinated 39 years later, on April 4, 1968), he might have been a metamodernist avant la lettre.
He placed the forces of love before those of segregation, and believed that love and forgiveness of past wrongs could wash away the negative energy of hatred.
“Martin Luther King, Jr., was the conscience of his generation. He gazed upon the great wall of segregation and saw that the power of love could bring it down. From the pain and exhaustion of his fight to fulfill the promises of our founding fathers for our humblest citizens, he wrung his eloquent statement of his dream for America. He made our nation stronger because he made it better. His dream sustains us yet.” (Jimmy Carter*)
His dreams for America in I have A Dream express universal aspirations and hopes for humankind; they are dreams of equality and fairness, of tolerance and forgiveness, of openness, dignity, self-fulfillment and love.
His aspirations were not only for political self-determination, but also for human and spiritual fulfilment, for humans – irrespective of race, gender, creed – recovering their humanity and dignity and engaging in exchanges and meaningful communication with one another. He draws on the narratives of the past, from the Biblical to the Shakespearean, to weave a hope for the African Americans, for any American, really, and for any human being.
His message is as urgent today as it was in 1963. But now it is vital that we read it as a message to the world. And that we understand that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” for “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963). The destiny of everyone is tied up with everybody else’s destiny: “their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone” (I have a dream
Below are some of my favourite quotes from I have dream. I have added [the world] (after America) and a few more words in [brackets] to emphasise the universal meaning of his message. I also read his message as pointing out the social responsibility incumbent on everyone, especially in the passages when he talks of ghettos:
• We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America [/the world] of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.• It would be fatal for the nation [/the world] to overlook the urgency of the moment.• Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must ever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.• And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied. No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.• I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecutions and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to […] the slums and ghettos of our cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American [/humanistic] dream.• I have a dream that one day this nation [/humankind] will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.I have a dream that one day even the states […] sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into oases of freedom and justice.I have a dream that our children will one day live in a nation [/world] where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!I have a dream that one day little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.This is our hope. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation [/world] into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. And this will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!” And if America is to be a great nation and the world is to live up to its destiny, this must become true.Let freedom ring — from every mountainside, let freedom ring!And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual,“Free at last, free at last.Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
He saw the interdependence between groups, and he had a vision of unity that respected diversity, believed in the power of the weak, and the soul power over might. He had hewn a revolutionary dream when there were few indicators that that dream would ever come true, and he believed in it with force and passion. He was accused of endless flaws – personal, ethical, and political – in a campaign of character destruction, yet he pursued his path and that of his people’s aspirations, believed in his dream with the intensity that standing on truth, and on visionary imagination give. I think that he was a metamodern who sought political and social freedoms as much as intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual ones.
GF: I don’t really disagree with what you’ve written, but I do still lean to the view that MLK was a person steeped in modernism, who was at the threshold of postmodernism’s changes, with (what was to prove to be, through the lens of history) a metamodernist sensibility.
AD: Tinkering with I have dream to emphasise what it means to me, a non-American, might annoy people, but I think it is a valid reading, and one that enriches me, as well as the message of MLK’s manifesto, by granting larger, general-human/universal meanings. Gary, you obviously know more about MLK than I do, and understand the political purport of his actions better. I might be seeing the personal/human/spiritual dimension of his personality, while you are more aware of the political, in which case we can be simultaneously right, if this makes sense.
GF: Yes. As we know from metamodernist theory, the postmodernist perspective of having many and various pespectives on “the truth,” dependent upon one’s circumstances (internal and external) is retained as one of the great gifts of postmodernism. We’re about dialogue, no dogma.
* Carter, Jimmy (July 11, 1977). “Presidential Medal of Freedom Remarks on Presenting the Medal to Dr. Jonas E. Salk and to Martin Luther King, Jr.”. The American Presidency Project. Archived from the original on 2013-01-04. Retrieved 2013-01-04.