|A typical Martin Luther King Day poster co-opting his message with jingoist symbols.|
Note: A version of this was post on the MLK holiday last year. The same things still stick in my craw, so here it is again. Share widely—especially with complacent White folks.
Today is the Federal Holiday celebrating the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was born on January 12, 1929 and was assasinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a long, hard fought effort to create a federal holiday, following proclamations in several states. President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation creating the holiday in 1983 and it was first celebrated nationally in 1986. The senior George Bush moved the date to the third Monday in January. Despite the national observance, several states refused to enact state proclamations. After a threatened national economic boycott threatened the Super Bowl in Arizona, the holiday was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.
Depending on your state, schools may or may not be open. It they are you can count on some kind of touchy-feely programming that will assure children that once, long, long ago things weren’t so nice for Black people, but thanks to Dr. King everything is just fine now. A tremendous amount of time will be spent emphasizing his non-violence and schools now routinely use the occasion as a center piece in their violence prevention programs. They will also emphasize tolerance of those who are different—which it turns out may just be the red-headed kid or the girl with a lisp.
As laudable as these things are, children are not apt to be told that their grandparents may just have been the ones doing the oppression of Black folk. Nor are they given any real sense of Dr. King as a truly revolutionary figure willfully defying the power of the state, demanding true systematic change, addressing class inequality, and in time of war leading an opposition to that war.
In cities, towns and villages across much of the country, there will be obligatory civic observations. These most often take the form of prayer breakfasts, dutifully attended by local dignitaries of all races. While some local Black preacher may take the occasion to lay out some harsh truths or even demand attention to continuing injustices, everybody will applaud politely. Politicians will parade to the podium with bromides. Some one—preferably the precocious son of a Black preacher—will intone words from the I Have a Dream Speech, and at the end maybe everyone will join hands and sing We Shall Over Come. I bet you have been to just this kind of event. Hell, I’ve even helped plan and put them on.
There will be nostalgic clips of the March on Washington on the news, maybe a documentary or two on the History Channel and Public Television.
Many of the people who hated Dr. King when he was alive or who are their spiritual descendents will blandly join in the celebrations. And then they will turn his words against him. When you hear a plump politico with a honeyed accent quote, as they all love to do, the one phrase from the I Have a Dream speech where he spoke about the little children being judged not on the color of their skins but on the “strength of their characters,” watch out. That hack is about to use Dr. Kings words to attack that dream. He will say that now that we have erased statutory discrimination, any lingering program that gives disadvantaged minorities the slightest leg-up is itself discriminatory. Dr. King would want a perfectly color bland society. Unspoken is his deep conviction that in such a color blind society, white men will rise like cream and be restored to their rightful place on top of the ladder—as if they had ever really lost it.
Dr. King will also be invoked for his non-violence, which will be translated into passivity. Law breaking—including the kind the Civil Rights Movement routinely used—will be denounced. No word will be uttered that Dr. King’s non-violence actually expected to provoke violent opposition and use that response to tweak the conscience of a democratic nation.
Since Dr. Kings time, police departments have been provided with new arms and tactics. New “crowd control” methods and security provisions make the kind of marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations led by King either impossible or kept far away from “threatening” the safety of those being protested, as we have seen repeatedly in attacks on the Occupy Movement. New restrictions on the press, and when that doesn’t work outright attacks, arrests, and physical intimidation, keeps reporters from fully reporting on acts of civil disobedience so that the public consciousness may be safely left un-tweeked.
Last year, rising to a new level of audacious gall, a senior Pentagon official, in a program marking Dr. King’s birth at the Department of Defense, actually argued that the Nobel Peace Prize winner would “understand” and “approve” of the “work of our soldiers” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We are told that because Dr. King was a faithful Baptist, he would not today support Gay, lesbian, and transgendered people and that it is a mockery to compare their struggle to the Civil Rights Movement. The Black church is divided on this—even Dr. King’s children are—but it is hard to imagine his rejection of justice for them.
Likewise some Black leaders will claim, especially in their own communities, that Dr. King fought just for them, that gains he fought for should not be extended to the growing Latino minorities that threaten to displace them as the most “oppressed.”
All of this is possible because more than 40 years after his death Martin Luther King has been sanitized. He has been scrubbed clean of the any semblance of actual humanity, any personal foibles or flaws, and midnight doubts or struggles of the soul. He has become an empty vessel into which can be poured a safe and bland pudding which can placate pesky Blacks with a pat-on-the-head while protecting the status quo.
Enough! The real, flesh and blood Dr. King would have none of it. Let’s remember him today for who he was, not who the charlatans want to make him out to be. And let’s remember that as great as he was, he was one man. Let’s not denigrate the truly historic sacrifices of thousands and thousands of ordinary people who repeatedly literally put their lives on the line—and continue to do so today. Let’s celebrate him and them by rededicating ourselves to standing up as they did, by putting our bodies, when necessary, on the line to achieve his true dream of an equitable and just society.