On January 15th we might have remembered what would have been the 91st birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but his celebrations this year are on the 18th. It is one of those more convenient Monday holidays that make for three-day weekends.
There is so much about Dr. King and his work that we really could celebrate. But our nation seems to prefer to focus most of its attention on his words in his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on August 28th in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial to the 1963 March on Washington.
No doubt, those words are inspiring, passionate, prophetic, and hopeful. It’s his most recited speech, while others are less familiar.
Our culture has made it iconic, quite useful, and less threatening. By removing it from the context of King’s total life and thought, we have woven it into a pattern that can conveniently inhibit real, structural change.
In other words, we have popularized some lines and images so that King doesn’t really threaten the system. King can appear, thereby, to place the entire blame for racial problems on individuals. Then, we can preach that you, the individual, should just stop being prejudiced. Just say no!
It is all just the fault of individuals, we can conclude. It has nothing to do with the way the institutions of our culture are conceived, setup, run, and financed, or what they teach, and how they make their profits.
It has nothing to do with the dominant military-industrial-prison-media-corporate complex that participates in white color crimes, denies that it’s at fault, blames “a few bad apples,” and works to re-hide its sicknesses from sight.
A need for deep-rooted change
But King knew better. He knew that there were entrenched structural problems with our way of doing things that required deep-rooted change.
The FBI and other “authorities” didn’t target him because he told people they should not be prejudiced. King did not protest the Vietnam War merely because it reflected the white racism of individuals who participated. And King was not assassinated because he thought individuals alone needed to change.
In fact, King was assassinated while in Memphis to support better pay and conditions for its garbage workers. His life and work had become a challenge to the socio-economic system itself. He could see that our institutional structures embodied much deeper problems and that they needed to change.
But protecting the structures is every culture’s pattern. So, how do we usually try to fix things without challenging the powers that be?
We re-enact punishing fathers’ methods. Blame individuals. Make people feel guilty, scared, ashamed, deviant, or sick.
Tell them human nature is bad, or defective or essentially wild, greedy, selfish, sinful, or flawed. Threaten them with hell fire.
Pass more laws. Punish them more severely. Announce that we’re “tough on crime.”
Preach individual responsibility more. Find people to doctor statistics so it appears we’re successful — like the popular corporate business technique of inflating profits.
And when these old and tired methods still don’t work, we do more of them — more prisons, stiffer punishments, more executions, more wars, more, more, more. In fact, if incarcerations continue to grow at the current rate in the U.S., it looks as if half of our population could be in prison by 2023. Now, that’ll fix things.
Corporate problems with telling the truth? Punish some executives.
Poverty? Call them lazy.
Cancer? Never suggest it’s from companies polluting our environment who also make money on drugs for victims instead.
Teenage pregnancy? Scare them and deny them information.
Violent crime? Get everyone armed.
A lack of journalism that investigates institutions? Emphasize tabloid journalism and personal stories.
Problems with government leaders being bought? Scapegoat a few while politicians take money from the same old sources.
Loss of jobs? Blame affirmative action or foreigners.
A growing economic disparity between the few rich and the many? Blame the many for being untalented, without ambition, and unwilling to take risks while lionizing corporate moguls.
Drug use? Throw them all in prison.
But never get down to the societal conditions that might require radical change. And marginalize, demonize, and eliminate from the discussion anyone, no matter how good their supporting research is, that points to societal conditions that produce our problems.
Never threaten the system. Let the institutions that produce wealth for the few and subsistence for the many grind on without change.
A dream deferred for LGBTQ+ people
And what LGBTQ+ people have had to face head-on is that this is the system that has often blamed them for the prejudice, discrimination, hatred, violence, sickness, and death they face even today. It wants to tell them that they are the problem and it wants them to believe that it’s something about them that needs to change.
The system does not want to change. It wants us to change.
It is a system that has needed homophobia to sell its products but also wants LGBTQ+ money. It intends to keep straight white males in charge but needs others to believe they can buy into its structures.
It smiles at LGBTQ+ people when they look straight. It doesn’t want their “lifestyle” to challenge its ethics, its exploitation of normative straightness, its definitions of humanity, or its priorities.
It’s always been afraid that LGBTQ+ people would rise up from some queer space and expect better for themselves. So it loves to sell them alcohol and other addictions so that they don’t feel that their lives might be on the wrong track and decide that they need to change things to make their lives better, healthier, and deeply joyful. And society around them, then, doesn’t experience that better either.
It’s wanted our AIDS organizations to act like straight-acting charities that settle for serving the afflicted and preach safe sex to individuals. It doesn’t want them to question government and pharmaceutical company policies politically and economically. It prefers that they raise money from individuals and the private sector like good little charities and not take any dollars away from government priorities related to our war-based economic system.
Fear dominates our system as well as the corporate executives who seek more compensation on top of the current billions they receive because they fear our system’s fragility. But our system and its leaders are still really afraid that LGBTQ+ people and others outside the mainstream will change things, that our society may have to search for new answers, new definitions, and new ways to structure its institutions.
And change that makes a difference isn’t easy. As one reviewer concluded his review of my book Scared Straight: “Although it would certainly be nice to invert the civilized world’s thinking a little, it is also, quite frankly, just too much work.”
But the reality is that LGBTQ+ people and their allies can continue to do it and must. We need to take responsibility, surely. But the fact that we’ve often been left outside the mainstream is not our fault. The system needs to, and can, change. To always strive to fit into it might be to betray ourselves and to deny a hope everyone needs.
And King knew that. As he said in less famous words:
The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority. (Strength in Love, 1963)
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.