I am an educator at an international high school. Most my day is spent teaching students history and interacting with colleagues. It’s a good gig. I’ll mention it more in the future since kids from abroad have a way of casting a strange light on American culture. They generally seem to like Americans (although they find our drinking laws preposterous) but they find some of our sexual mores (among other things) peculiar. We are both too liberal and too conservative.
I digress, but will return to this at a later date.
One day I headed home with a fellow teacher and in the course of the conversation classical education came up and after a I give her a brief description the teacher says, without a hint of real cynicism in her voice, “Oh, so dead white men education.” I say “without real cynicism” if only because her reaction was reflexive and presuppositional. If I had pushed, I imagine some defense of this reaction would have emerged (misogyny, patrimony, heteronormativity, colonialism, the invention of the atom bomb, eye blinding white skin at the beach, etc.). She had me pegged—I was one of those guys who read the works of dead white men.
I proceeded to make a mild, non-controversial defense of classical education. Later, though, after I had mulled it over a bit it occurred to me what I should have said. So I’ll say it now.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. found himself in a Birmingham jail after violating a court order that prohibited him from organizing mass protests in said city. While he languished in prison, he received a letter from some white clergymen empathetic to his objectives to achieve racial equality, but challenging the aggressiveness with which he pursued his campaign of non-violent resistance. In reply, King penned one of the most enduring of American letters in which he grounded his argument in the American, Western, and Christian intellectual tradition. Simply put, without dead white men, you have no King.
In the letter he places himself in the tradition of the “8th century prophets”, the “apostle Paul”, and the “Gospel of Jesus Christ”, which he saw as synonymous with his “gospel of freedom”. “Just as Socrates”, he wrote, created tensions in the mind, “so that individuals could rise from…bondage”, King saw himself as a “gadfly”. He cites Socrates again, twice, in the rest of the letter. He quotes Saint Augustine: “An unjust law is no law at all.” He quotes Saint Thomas Aquinas: “An unjust law is a human law not rooted in eternal and natural law.” He quotes Paul Tillich (a Christian existential philosopher of the 20th century) and Martin Buber (a Jewish philosopher of the 20th century) on the matter of sin and relationships with others. He cites Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s disobedience of Nebuchadnezzar as obedience to God. He goes on a rampage: “Was not Jesus an extremist for love?… Was not Amos an extremist for justice?…Was not Paul an extremist for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?…Was not Martin Luther an extremist?…Was not John Bunyan an extremist?” He talks about the early Christians in glowing terms: people who were too “God intoxicated” to be “astronomically intimidated” by the threat of horrible death; people who brought an end to systemic infanticide in the Roman empire; people who obeyed God rather than men and lost their lives for it. He cites T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.
He goes on to praise America’s past as well. He expounds on the courage of the Pilgrims. He celebrates Jefferson and the “majestic words of the Declaration of Independence”. He calls Lincoln an admirable extremist. Finally he declares: “One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thusly, carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
King saw these dead white men as not only valuable for the cause of civil rights but essential. Indeed, the force of his letter depends on these dead white men. Granted, they had flaws as did King himself. Men are weak even when they see the same moral truths. But this is a failure of courage, not the lack of principle. And yet, this is where King’s peculiar brilliance appears. He quotes white men to white men, he confronts them with their own past, and yet at the level of principle, King believes that skin color one day ought to be beside the point. After all, it is King that once said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This echoes Scripture: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” While one may see King’s pleading in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as racial (why doesn’t he quote Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, or W.E.B. Dubois?) he’s underscoring a shared moral foundation with his white audience. Yes, these things, I agree with them! Further the ease with which he quotes these the Western past from a jail cell shows how deeply he had drank at the well of the West. This leads him to conclude that black and white can unite on the principles found in Scripture and the American founding. Indeed, he holds these up as the essential bedrock of any free society. One cannot remove the organ, first principles, and expect the function: freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
While it has become popular to dismiss dead white men in leftist circles, such positions are out of accord with one of the great, black advocates of the Western “dead white man” tradition. The tragedy is that in jettisoning away the sepulcher of the fathers, the modern world has founded their defense of human rights on increasingly arbitrary terms derived from emotionalism. The implications of this are too extensive to elaborate here, but the consequences are vast.
But maybe this is just the ravings of a white man appropriating a black man to make a point about the value of dead white men. Or perhaps King was cynically using dead white men to beat living white men into compliance with his agenda. Or perhaps he was just a naive black man with a false conscience distorted by the white oppressor past. If we take King at his word, though, he doesn’t see the world in terms of the oppressor-oppressed paradigm. He sees the foundations of goodness and moral confrontation present in the very roots of Western “oppressor” culture and history. The white world of 1963 only needed to be called to live up to its best traditions and that’s what King did.