The spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. still seems to stir serious controversy among politicians. But, as we're witnessing with the latest racial politics pushing the primary process, the King icon is also being used to build the fortunes and legacies of these politicians, especially those who would be president.
Despite a racial controversy involving a newsletter bearing Ron Paul's name that called King a "world-class adulterer" and "pro-communist philanderer," the Republican candidate plans to launch a new and likely record-breaking multimillion dollar "super Tuesday" fundraising campaign on Jan. 21, Martin Luther King, Jr., day; Mitt Romney mentioned seeing King only to later "clarify" that he never actually saw him; Rudy Giuliani regularly makes references to King in speeches, books and security consulting engagements that earned the former New York mayor the millions of dollars that were, until recently, paying for his campaign. And Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are in the midst of a fierce battle over the MLK legacy to see who deserves to win the black vote.
Lost in the bickering over and celebrations of King as an individual is any notion of the social movement that defined King and an entire generation. Similarly, the mind-numbing mantra of "change" mouthed ad infinitum by all of today's presidential candidates would have us believe that they, not we, are the arbiters of change. The King anniversary appears to provide candidates an opportunity to remind us that they have a monopoly on "change."
The most recent electoral banter around King takes place within the collective amnesia about his views, especially his later views focusing on issues dogging us to this day: racism and poverty, prisoners and war. To the detriment of our political process, we forget that King's views came about at least in part as a response to a black political milieu defined not just by white racism, but by the wealth of spirited action and the intellectual perspective provided by millions of people, thousands of organizations and other, less-requited political stars - Angela Davis, the Black Panthers and their combination of service and calls to militancy; Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam and their own brand of self-determination; Stokely Carmichael and the more militant students of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. These and many others influenced and pressured King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s.
As the harried run toward this year's King celebrations and the South Carolina primary continues, the practically propagandistic repetitions and variations of words and phrases like "change," "hope," "content of character", "I have a dream" and other King-isms are coded and distributed for mass consumption like Coca-Cola. Coke is, in fact, the main corporate sponsor of a gigantic new civil rights museum located just a shout from Ebenezer Baptist Church and King's birthplace in Atlanta.
Nowhere is this denial of the "social" in "change" better exemplified than in statements made by Hillary Clinton, who said last week, "Dr King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done." Few among the pundits noted how Clinton's framing of the issue deleted the social component of change. Instead, the media, pundits and even community leaders are engaged in a heated discussion about what the candidates believe: whether it was King, the individual, or Johnson, the individual, who "realized" the dream.
This climate has benefited Barack Obama, who speaks more skillfully than any other candidate to a still mostly white electorate that is largely unwilling to deal collectively with issues of race and racism beyond the platitudes one hears during official celebrations of King. Obama's King-like cadences and charisma give us that semi-religious feeling that goes with being part of a social change movement -only without a social change movement.
In critical ways, the lack of the "social" in our discussions of "change" allows us to gloss over crucial differences between Obama the candidate and King, the leader of the Poor People's Campaign. When asked how he would like to be remembered after his death, King said, "I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison."
Like his competitors, Obama spends most of his time making speeches packed with calls for tax cuts and other proposals targeting the crumbling bastion of individualism: the "middle class." He spends little to no time at rallies dealing with those most devastated by the lack of change: working class people, especially young people like those fueling the Jena Six movement. As he and the other candidates vie to be the inheritors of the King legacy, those who would be King say not a word about forcing "change" in a prison industry that predicts the value of its stock based on the future school performance of black and Latino third graders.
As we decide, during these times of continued crisis, on whom to vote for and what to do beyond the ballot box once they get elected, we might do well to recall the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., social change agent: "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."
Not one dedicated individual, but many.
Roberto Lovato is a New York-based contributing Associate Editor with New America Media and a frequent contributor to The Nation Magazine. You can find him posting regularly on media, migration, politics and other issues at his blog, www.ofamerica.wordpress.com.
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