King’s Teachings on US Imperialism Opened My Eyes to Radical Thought – Dayvon Love on Reality Asserts Itself (1/2)
Young Baltimore activist Dayvon Love tells Paul Jay how MLK’s teaching that American blacks must be anti-imperialist, changed his life.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. This is another episode of Reality Asserts Itself.
Monday is Martin Luther King’s 85th birthday. And usually on Martin Luther King’s day we try to talk about what was the real significance of his life. And in the past we have talked about how the essence of Martin Luther King has been lost in most of the mainstream discussion about who he was. The revolutionary Martin Luther King has been more or less forgotten, and Martin Luther King has become a symbol of, well, volunteerism. And we’ve discovered that perhaps more than anyone else in the country there are streets named after Martin Luther King, thousands of them across the country, in cities that could care less about what he stood for.
So we thought we’d do something a little different this time and talk to someone who’s, you could say, trying to follow, walk in, advance some of the footsteps of Martin Luther King–a young activist. And he now joins us in our studio in Baltimore.
Thanks for joining us.
This is Dayvon Love.
DAYVON LOVE, DIRECTOR, LEADERS OF A BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE: Thanks.
JAY: So Dayvon is the director of research and public policy for the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. In 2011, he ran for City Council. Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, I should say, is a young activist group that’s very involved in developing public policy, particularly for the city of Baltimore. They’ve also organized against the construction of a new juvenile detention center in Baltimore and taken up many other issues.
In 2008, Dayvon and his debate partner, Deven Cooper, won the Cross Examination Debate Association National Championship. It was the first time in history that an all-black team won the tournament. In 2009, he was awarded Debater of the Year and Top Speaker of the CEDA Championship, which I guess stands for Cross Examination Debate Association.
LOVE: Got it.
JAY: Recently, Dayvon–sorry. In 2009, he was third-place speaker in the prestigious National Debate Tournament. And it’s the highest speaker award that any black person has gotten at that tournament.
And he now joins us.
LOVE: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
JAY: So, as you know, viewers of Reality Asserts Itself, we often–not always, but often start a little personal, biographical, kind of deal with why our guests think what they think, and then we get more into what they think. And we’re going to do a little bit of an abbreviated version of that with Dayvon, only ’cause we’re pressed for time.
So you’re born and bred in Baltimore. And as you’ve told me, your parents were not political, were not activists in the civil rights movement. But you are about as activist as one gets in Baltimore; you’re not the only one, but you’re about as activist as one gets. So what were some of the formative experiences? I mean, talk about growing up in Baltimore and what kind of pushed you in this direction.
LOVE: Yeah. I mean, I’ve always had a knack for wanting to improve the quality of life of the people that I cared about the most. And so one of the things that I always kind of innately had was the desire to do things that kind of improve the conditions. And so I never really had the language to explain it or to even really think about many of the ideas that it would take to develop, you know, ideas that would help form my political ideology at this point my life, and so, you know, just the experience of going to public school and kind of just seeing the things around me as they are and knowing that something wasn’t right.
What happened, though, was that I found debate. So I’m in alum of the Baltimore Urban Debate League. And one of the things that happened was that–it was actually interesting how I got into debate. You know, I was at Forest Park High School, and practices were in the mornings. And so, you know, I used to get dropped off very early, and so I just wanted an excuse to get into the building. So I just told the people at the front desk, I’m going to debate practice. And so I go up to the room, to the debate practice. I meet Andreas Spiliadis, who ended up being my high school coach for large parts of my high school debate career. And then from there I kind of was able to begin talking and discussing through many of the things that I kind of innately thought growing up in Baltimore, but never really having the language to explain.
And so, you know, from there, you know, I was able to do well enough in debate in high school to get, actually, a scholarship to go to Towson University for debate. And it was there that I actually met Andy Ellis, who ended up being, you know, one of my coaches. And it kind of began the process of really radicalizing a lot of the things that I have been thinking about, just in terms of understanding U.S. foreign policy, understanding Third World struggles against U.S. imperialism and colonialism. You know, those were kind of the general ideas that kind of were beginning to change the tide for me intellectually in terms of how I thought about the world.
And then eventually I met my mentor, Daryl Burch, who was actually a debate coach at the University of Louisville, who actually provided, I think, a framework that I think I’ve held on to ever since I’ve encountered him.
JAY: Go back to growing up in Baltimore, just your personal experience. What kind of neighborhood was it? In terms of your experience, I mean, Baltimore is quite an apartheid city. There’s very clearly white areas and black areas. You know, what was that effect on your thinking and feeling about things? And also a bit more about how your parents looked on this, how they tried to explain all this to you.
LOVE: Well, I mean, I lived in an area called Howard Park, and Howard Park is an area that actually–most of the people that live in Howard Park are elderly African-American people who–you know, many of them retired, but in very close proximity to areas where there was high drug activity and crime and so on. And so one of the things that my parents did try to do is to keep, you know, me and my younger brother away from that activity is much as possible. And I think a part of the way that it informed my thinking was that I was able to really see what was happening kind of from the outside looking in, you know, in terms of knowing people, having friends that engaged in, you know, things that folks would consider criminal activity.
JAY: What did your parents do?
LOVE: Well, my mother’s an instructional assistant, actually, at an elementary school, and my father at the time was actually working at NeighborCare. So working-class–.
JAY: So, in your house, working-class family, but education mattered.
LOVE: Right. Right. Right. It was really important. They made it a point to make sure that my brother and I really tried to focus on that.
JAY: Well, we’re going to probably get into your history more again, ’cause you’re going to be a regular guest. And actually, I should have said right up front, to be completely transparent here, Dayvon works as one of the principal people and leaders of A Beautiful Struggle, as I mentioned, this local group, and they’re going to be having an office on our second floor in our new building. So just for transparency’s sake, I’m telling everybody that. And, also, we’re going to be doing a lot of back-and-forth interviews and other things. So LBS is going to be organizing some town halls in our space.
So we’re going to kind of jump ahead, ’cause as I said, we’re running out of time.
Let me jump to one question. As you’re in your debate and you get to towns and you’re getting more and more politicized and you’re starting to think about concept, as you say, of imperialism and colonialism and racism is a systemic thing and so on, to what extent does the life teaching, meaning of Martin Luther King, how does that shape your thinking? And, of course, I assume at some point Malcolm X also becomes part of it, and that’s always been a kind of, rightly or wrongly, a comparison for people.
LOVE: I mean, that’s actually a really interesting question. So there’s a book that I read by Nikhil Pal Singh called Black Is a Country, and in it, he starts with his criticism of the way that the sanitized notion of Martin Luther King is used to justify the American nation state and the collective imagination of Americans. And what he’s–describes is that there are certain discourses that have been evoked that continue to be reverberated in the minds of Americans in order to justify America’s kind of exceptionalism around the world, its moral legitimacy. And one of the things that really helped me to unpack that discourse, even within my own psyche, within my own thinking, was just to become more aware of U.S. imperialism around the world and how King’s legacy, in terms of challenging U.S. imperialism, was important, how he connected–. One of the things he said was that as black folks, you know, we should fashion ourselves as anti-imperialist, because we have been most directly confronted by the ravages of American imperialism. And so that kind of really helped change the trajectory of my thinking, because it was really–it was the framework from which King was presented to me that was really the biggest hurdle in my politicization, and overcoming that hurdle really opened my eyes to be able to embrace other radical political ideas in a way that wasn’t at odds with the image that I had had of King, you know, growing up.
JAY: Yeah, the sanitized, official version of King is he wanted reforms on the domestic front, and even there it’s very sanitized, the sort of things he said, because by the end of his life, he was making straightforwardly anticapitalist speeches. But most sanitized was his not just opposition to the Vietnam War; his opposition to imperialism, and in those words.
LOVE: Right. Exactly. And, I mean, I think the thing that’s really interesting about King’s legacy: you know, there are a bunch of quotes that I feel like if people were to hear, they wouldn’t think King would say. You know. So an example that I give people sometimes: Harry Belafonte, he describes a conversation he had with King, I think, five days before he was assassinated, where King was, you know, melancholy, and he asked him what was wrong, and he says, I fear I’ve integrated my people to a burning house, that America has lost its moral, you know, compass, its moral legitimacy. And so there he is kind of reflecting on the Civil Rights Act of ’64, the Voting Rights Act of ’65, and he’s reflecting on the strategy that he deployed in trying to get freedom for black people in the United States. And I think him reflecting on that in that particular way I think is really instructive on how then we should view what he would say at this point in time. You know, in Trumpet of Conscience, one of the things he says was that the only thing that’s going to really transform our society is a radical redistribution of political power and wealth. You know. And it’s those kinds of things that should really be instructive on how we are to move forward from where we started.
JAY: Well, we’re going to do more of that in part two of this interview, which we’re going to start pretty soon: what would Martin Luther King say, in your opinion, especially about what issues you were taking up in Baltimore.
But go a little further with your own progression. So King kind of opens a door for you.
JAY: And then I am assuming it’s not very long before you get to Malcolm X and other thinkers.
LOVE: Well, one of the things that Pal Singh says, and other scholars that I eventually were exposed to, was that the whole notion of violence versus nonviolence was an–it is a framework that comes from the subject position of kind of the European colonial mind, because the idea is, you know, violent or nonviolent toward whom. Right? And so, you know, if you think about what that means in our society, you know, those who are considered kind of the norm, the kind of–what our society is built around, it’s your average, you know, middle-class, white, suburban, you know, context. That’s what this country is kind of predicated on ideologically. And so, you know, one of the things that I think is important–so as I kind of get exposed more to what King really said and then I get to Malcolm X, you know, one of the things that then I’m able to do is to navigate the ideas without the baggage that has kind of been projected onto these two figures, right, in order to really understand how their ideas intersect.
JAY: And the other part: both of these men are dealt with usually as if they’re sort of fixed things.
JAY: They were far from it. Their thinking was evolving all the time. And I think one of the things that’s hidden most about Martin Luther King is how in the end he and Malcolm came to very similar conclusions. They weren’t that far in the end.
LOVE: Absolutely. I would think King eventually–I mean, at one point he explicitly kind of defends the notion of democratic socialism, and Malcolm gets to a point where he talks about democratic socialism. But I think the other thing is that King, I think, eventually starts to move more towards kind of a black nationalist, Pan-African nationalist perspective, whereas Malcolm refines his black nationalist Pan-Africanist perspective, right, so that the analysis of class and race is theorized in a way that has fidelity to the importance of independent black institutions and the idea of self-empowerment, but also acknowledges the role that imperialism plays in organizing in that way.
JAY: Well, we’ll get into it more in part two. But I think the other thing that MLK does, which I think is the right synthesis of these two issues, is you have separate black institutions, but you also have African-Americans at the leadership of a people’s movement, you know, that there is–in fact, I personally don’t think there’s going to be a transformative people’s movement in America if African Americans aren’t at the head of it, in the head of it, and maybe at the head of it. But not only of–but also there’s a role for the separate institutions.
JAY: But it’s kind of both, which I think King had started to develop. But we’ll get into this in part two, ’cause what he didn’t seem to have is an independent electoral strategy for a movement, and I think that’s one of the great things that was missing.
So in part two of our interview, we’re going to get more into the significance and meaning of the life of Martin Luther King and what Dayvon thinks what he might say today, especially about the struggle going on in big American cities like Baltimore. So please join us for the continuation of this Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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