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The Shameful Exploitation of Martin Luther King Jr.

When a politician votes for programs and policies inimical to those King defended, they are purely hypocritical when they appropriate his words and feign admiration for him.

The Shameful Exploitation of Martin Luther King Jr.

The Shameful Exploitation of Martin Luther King Jr.

At 12:17 p.m. on April 4th Congressman Barry Loudermilk posted, “‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ – Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.” to his Facebook wall.

At 9:13 a.m. Vice President Pence posted: “50 years ago today, Dr. King's life was tragically cut short - but that did not stop his immortal words, his courageous example and his faith from inspiring generations of Americans. Today we honor the man and the Dream. #MLK50

President Trump tweeted: “Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Earlier this year I spoke about Dr. King’s legacy of justice and peace, and his impact on uniting Americans.

Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of reflections and acknowledgements to the work and life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

On April 4th, 1968, our hero was shot at 6:01 p.m. on the balcony near his room at the Lorraine Motel (he died at 7:05 p.m. that night). King was in Memphis supporting the city’s sanitation workers. Memphis paid black workers significantly less than white workers, an inequality still seen across the country.

He delivered his final—"I've Been to the Mountaintop"—address the day before with the knowledge that there were threats against his life. He acknowledged, “And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats... or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?” But he refused to allow fear to get in the way of his message for equality—a promised land— “He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

This context is significant. King was motivated by the strong need for economic equality and social justice and his Poor Peoples Campaign was largely a reflection of his understanding of Jesus’s teachings. The workers suffered from systemic abuses, but were not responding to low wages in that instance, they were outraged about the lack of a response to the death of two workers crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. The poorly paid workers still needed to use food-stamps to feed their families.

Fifty years later this reality remains unchanged. Pence serves an administration that wants people on welfare and food-stamps to get jobs, but the majority already work. Meanwhile congressional Republicans (like Loudermilk) want to cut benefits, efforts to kick 8 million people (20 percent of recipients) off of food stamps are underway, and there is speculation that increased spending and tax giveaways are a means to gutting welfare programs and the social safety net as a whole. These actions dishonor King’s legacy.

Starving the beast—lower corporate taxes, increase Pentagon spending, swell the deficit—to justify cutting the benefit programs that millions require to survive. This is the thrust of the Republican White House and Congress.

Agape—compassionate love for humankind—is what King promoted. When our leaders practice that, they deserve to publicly associate themselves with Dr. King.

There is perhaps no greater example of this harm than the division between the selflessness in the work of King and the selfishness in the work of Trump. Five years after King’s death Trump still found economic benefit in the practice of segregation. In 1973 he was accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against potential minority renters. He settled in 1975, but continued to discriminate. In 1978 charges were filed—again—“to ensure realistic opportunity to nonwhite citizens to rent dwellings in predominately white, buildings.” In 1983, Trump properties still have populations that are 95 percent white.

Donald Trump found the profitability of racist segregation too attractive to ignore even when it was illegal. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed for delivering the message of equality. I confess it hard to maintain a pure agape for Donald Trump.

These opportunists are exactly the oppressors King refers to in Letter from Birmingham Jail when he writes, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” They deny that “[i]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” They profit through the exploitation of others, they author and sign bigoted policies. They send the country’s poor to fight in wars from which the rich profit. It is no different than the Vietnam, whose devastation, at the hands of “deadly Western arrogance,” King noted as “we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.”

It is no surprise to see that politicians elected on racist agendas have the willingness to exploit the messages of those oppressed and condemned by them. But we hold civic and moral responsibilities to nonviolently resist and speak out against the corrupt agendas and abhorrent policies. Millions of Americans are losing the ability to take care of themselves and their families as a result of the legislation that is being pushed forward. Healthcare, food, shelter, education, clean air to breathe and water to drink … (the list goes on) are all under attack. Billions of people around the world face the same concerns and increased threats of harm from American bombs and weapons manufactured for the wealth and security of elites.

No! When a politician votes for programs and policies inimical to those King defended, they are purely hypocritical when they appropriate his words and feign admiration for him.

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Wim Laven

Wim Laven

Wim Laven teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and is on the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association.

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