We Twisted King's Dream, So We Live With His Nightmare

It's been a rough year for Martin Luther King, Jr., and for his legacy.Bridget Johnson at Martin Luther King Day Parade on January 18, 2010 in Denver, Colorado. Photo: Getty Images/Matt McClain

It's been a rough year for Martin Luther King, Jr., and for his legacy.

First, as has become an annual ritual, politicians went to church or
some other civic gathering for last year's King Day celebration, even as
they continued to support public policies that he found abhorrent.
Whether continuing to prosecute a seemingly endless and most definitely
murderous war, or by supporting cuts to vital social programs, there is
no shortage of hypocrisy when it comes to proclaiming fealty to King's
vision in words, while besmirching it in deeds, all at once.

Then of course came the venal cooptation of King's crowning public moment--the 1963 March on Washington--by Glenn Beck, this past August. Insisting that it was time to "reclaim the civil rights movement,"
because conservatives were the ones who "did it in the first place"--an
inversion of history so grotesque as to confound the imagination--Beck
inspired a gathering of tens of thousands of disaffected (mostly white)
reactionaries, likely none of whom had been involved with the civil
rights movement, but who now would be encouraged to see themselves as
the inheritors of King's "dream." This, even as they clamored for more
tax cuts for wealthy folks and the repeal of health care reform, all at
the behest of a guy who once said he would like to kill Rep. Charlie Rangel
with a shovel. I will leave it to others far more creative than myself
to determine how one might square any of that with the teachings or
beliefs of Dr. King. Then again, given the recent statement
by a Defense Department spokesperson who asserted that King would have
supported the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, anything is possible.

And this is especially true in a nation that has so thoroughly
sanitized and compartmentalized King's message, and King himself, within
the pantheon of national heroes. We have turned King into a milquetoast
moderate whose agenda went little beyond the ability to sit next to
white people on a bus. We've stripped away from the public remembrance
of this man his calls for income redistribution, his insistence that the
United States has become the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,"
and his proclamation that poverty, racism and militarism are the
"triple evils" that America's rulers have not the courage to confront.

When conservatives can effectively twist King's singular line about
judging people on the "content of their character" rather than the color
of their skin into a reason to oppose affirmative action, even though he openly supported such efforts
in his writings and interviews in 1961, 1963, 1965 and again in 1967,
it ought not surprise us that folks are a bit confused about who King
was, and about the principles for which he stood.

The way in which we have forgotten or been misled about King's legacy
is never more apparent than when asking children what they know about
his message. Sadly, when I have done so, the most typical answer given
is that King stood for not "hitting people," or "not hitting back if
they hit you first," or that his message would be, were he alive today,
"don't join a gang." While all these things are true I suppose, they
rather miss the point.

After all, King's commitment to non-violence had a purpose larger
than non-violence itself. Non-violence was, for King and the movement, a
means to a larger end of social, political and economic justice.
Non-violence was a tactic meant to topple racism and economic
exploitation, and lead the world away from cataclysmic warfare. That so
many young people seem not to get that part, because teachers are
apparently loathe to give it to them, renders King's non-violent message
no more particularly important than the banal parental reminder that we
should "use our words" to resolve conflicts, rather than our fists.
Thanks, but if that message were all it took to get a national holiday
named for you, my mother would have had her own years ago.

So we compartmentalize the non-violence message, much as we
compartmentalize books about King and the movement in that section of
the bookstore established for African-American history; much as we have
compartmentalized those streets named for the man, locating them only in
the blackest and often poorest parts of town.

Were this tendency to render King divisible on multiple
levels--abstracting non-violence from justice, colorblindness from racial
equity, and public service from radical social transformation--merely an
academic matter, it would hardly merit our concern. But its impact is
greater than that. Our only hope as a society is to see the connections
between the issues King was addressing and our current predicament, to
see that what affects part of the whole affects the greater body, to
understand that racism and racial inequity must be of concern to us all,
because they pose risks to us all.

For instance, were it not for the indifference to black and brown
suffering that animated much of the early non-response to the subprime
mortgage crisis (which manifested initially in the mid '90s, but
received little attention and even less government action), perhaps
steps would have been taken to prevent what has become, now, a
full-blown housing collapse. But rather than seeing the exploitation of
low income folks of color as a national emergency, most politicians and
media ignored it, or blamed the victims of predatory lending for being
too stupid to read the fine print on their loan documents. As such, the
lenders branched out, unregulated for the most part, into whiter and
middle-class communities, where they took advantage of folks there, too.
Now, millions of middle class white folks find themselves on the verge
of economic catastrophe, precisely because the suffering of the other was ignored for so long, and eventually, as suffering is wont to do, metastasized.

Likewise, if double-digit unemployment had been viewed as the
emergency it is, when only people of color were experiencing it (as they
typically have been, in good times or bad, year after year throughout
this century), perhaps lawmakers might have seen fit to address the
problem. But it wasn't, and so they didn't. And now whites are
experiencing double-digit joblessness as well, for the first time in
over three generations.

And if we had not long ago racialized the "have-nots" as undeserving
people of color, thereby allowing racial bias to block government
actions that might have been taken on their behalf--like universal health
care or massive investment in job creation--perhaps we would not today
have tens of millions of people, including millions of white folks,
lacking access to medical treatment or job security. But we did, and so
we do. And now we can witness white folks running around, speaking
against health care reforms from which they would personally gain, all
because of a fear that some of the benefits might go to "undeserving"
immigrants of color, or lazy folks (typically perceived as black and
brown) who don't want to pay for their own care.

In short, by not understanding the fundamental truth of King's
message that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, we
have created a society, 43 years since his death, where injustice and
suffering are rampant. And one in which the dreams of the civil rights
movement appear the fantastical products of some Ambien-induced haze.
Only by putting away, forever, the safe and sanitized version of this
man and his compatriots, might we ever awaken from the stupor and become
worthy of that which we celebrate this week.

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