The Friend We Need but Do Not Want: Martin Luther King Jr. On the inconvenience of Martin Luther King Jr.

Appears in Winter 2017 Issue: Ancient Friendships

December 1st, 2017

It may be the temptation of every age to see one's own time as uniquely haunted by the ghosts of the past or as disproportionately responsible for the shape of the future. It is a predictable form of generational vanity, I suppose. But even so, one could be forgiven for seeing our present days in just this way. I mean, honestly.

Almost everywhere one looks, indeed even if one tries not to look, life in the West seems to have fused its historic dysfunctions into something new; into a dark carnival of open racial hatred, unabated economic inequality, and cartoonish political theatre—each made more menacing by the very real threat of annihilating violence. Yes, one could be forgiven.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was slowly transformed from a courageous man with an extraordinary vision of democracy into little more than a highly quotable civic abstraction,; a figure that many revere, but that few really listen to.

And yet in the midst of the unfamiliar strangeness of these days, one could also be consoled by the re‐emergence of a familiar presence: that of Martin Luther King Jr. Almost everywhere one looks—again, even if one tries not to look—we see him: His face modelled on our murals, his words printed for our protests, his voice sampled in our songs. Donald Trump even has a bust of King in his office. Consider that for a moment . . .


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