By Alan Bean
In one of those odd quirks of history, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher shuffled off this mortal coil just as we were remembering the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and his great “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” delivered a half-century ago in April of 1963.
I wonder what King and Thatcher would have had to say to one another had history arranged such a meeting. I suspect they would have liked and, perhaps grudgingly respected one another, but have two people ever looked at the world through such different lenses?
Bleeding hearts like me remember Thatcher for her “families and society” comment. Let’s be fair and consider her words in full context:
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first… There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.’
King would certainly have agreed with Thatcher’s closing sentiments. He was big on self-reliance and he took a personal interest in the plight of the poor rather than leaving it all up to government. The difference between Thatcher and King comes down to a single word, “oppression.” King worked to reconcile the oppressed with their oppressors. Thatcher saw the distinction as a humbug and an evasion. If there is no society, there can be no oppressors and no oppressed; just individuals who take personal responsibility for themselves, and those who don’t.
This brief quotation, lifted from the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, provides context for King’s vision of the Beloved Community.
I am cognizant of the inter-relatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”
Maggie Thatcher, bless her heart, couldn’t relate to words like “injustice” and “oppression” because she had no practical experience with either. Certainly, she faced real challenges. The daughter of a grocer didn’t rise to the pinnacle of power in Great Britain without overcoming social snobbery and frozen assumptions about rank and place. She should be admired for pressing forward in the face of tremendous disappointment and opposition.
But Maggie Thatcher was never oppressed. In fact, her success in politics was largely due to her penchant for identifying with the interests of the powerful. In facing down the coal miners, Thatcher was doing the dirty work for corporate interests upon whose approval her political survival depended. She was successful, ultimately, because she always knew where her loyalties lay.
Dr. King was successful for much the same reason, only he sided, without exception or apology, with the poor and the oppressed.
And that is why, unlike the celebrated Maggie Thatcher, King didn’t live to enjoy his golden years. He was “tied in a single garment of destiny” with the oppressed and never tried to extricate himself.