Why Dr. King's Vision Today is as Urgent as Ever
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been 83 this year. He has been dead for longer than he was alive. As his living memory fades, replaced by a feel-good "I have a dream" whitewash that ignores much of what he stood for and fought against, it’s more important than ever to recapture the true history of Dr. King -- because much of what he fought against is resurfacing or still with us today.
King, the man, was, along with Mohandas Gandhi, one of the two most internationally revered symbols of nonviolence in the 20th century. He spent his too-brief adult life defying authority and convention, citing a higher moral authority, and gave hope and inspiration for the liberation of people of color on six continents.
King is not a global icon because he believed in diversity trainings and civic ceremonies, or because he had a nice dream. He is remembered because he took serious risks to his own life (and eventually lost it) fighting for a higher cause. King is also remembered because, among a number of brave and committed civil rights leaders and activists, he had a flair for self-promotion, a style that also appealed to white liberals, and the extraordinary social strength of the black Southern churches behind him.
What little history TV will give us around King’s holiday this year is at least as much about forgetting as about remembering, as much about self-congratulatory patriotism that King was American as self-examination that American racism made him necessary and that government, at every level, sought to destroy him. We hear "I have a dream"; we don't hear his powerful indictments of poverty, the Vietnam War, and the military-industrial complex.
We see Bull Connor in Birmingham; we don't see arrests for fighting segregated housing in Chicago, or the years of beatings and busts before he won the Nobel Peace Prize. We don't hear about the mainstream American contempt at the time for King, even after that Peace Prize, nor the FBI harassment or his reputation among conservatives as a Commie dupe.
We don't see retrospectives on King’s linkage of civil rights with Third World liberation. We forget that he died in Memphis lending support for a union (the garbage workers' strike), while organizing a multi-racial Poor Peoples' Campaign that demanded affordable housing and decent-paying jobs as basic civil rights transcending skin color. We forget that many of King's fellow leaders weren't nearly so polite. Cities were burning. We remember Selma instead.
And we forget that of those many dreams King had, only one -- equal access for non-whites -- is significantly realized today. More than half-century after the Montgomery bus boycott catapulted a 26-year-old King into national prominence, even that is only partly achieved. Blacks are being systematically disenfranchised in our elections, and affirmative action and school desegregation are all but dead. Urban school districts across the country these days are as segregated and unequal as ever. A conservative majority on the US Supreme Court has helped usher in a new era where possible redress for discrimination is steadily whittled away. Our prison populations are disproportionate non-white, and our law enforcement agencies are too often temples of institutionalized racism. Economic indices in the U.S., broken down by race and ethnicity, are an appalling joke.
Sure, gifted African-Americans like Barack Obama can achieve at a level unthinkable in King's day. But the better test of a society's colorblindness (or gender equity) is not how the most talented of each race or gender fare, but how the mediocre do. A black mediocrity like George W. Bush could still never, ever become President of the United States.
An even bigger problem with how we celebrate King's legacy, as a generation dies off and the historical memory fades, is that MLK has become an icon, not a historical figure (distorted or otherwise). History requires context; icons don’t. The racism King challenged four and five decades ago in Georgia and Alabama was also dominant throughout the country. Here in Seattle, few whites know that history: the housing and school segregation, laws barring Asians from owning land (overturned only in the '60s), the marches downtown from predominantly black Garfield High School, police harassment of both radical and mainstream black activists, the still-unsolved assassination of a local NAACP leader.
Every city in America has such histories. We don't know the stories of the people, some still with us, who led those struggles. And we rarely acknowledge that the overt racism of Montgomery 1955 is no longer so overt, but still part of America 2012. It shows up in our geography, in our jails, in our schools, in our voting booths, in our shelters and food banks, in our economy, in our law enforcement, and in the very earnest and extremely white activist groups -- hello, Occupy Movement -- that often carry the banner (or not) on these issues.
Opponents of affirmative action and racial equality can claim King's mantle and "if he were alive today" approval only because in 2012, pop culture’s MLK has no politics. And, for that matter, no faith. For white America, King's soft-focus image often reinforces white supremacism. “See? We're not so bad. We honor him now. Why don't those people just get over it, anyway? We did.”
All that is a lie. Dr. King’s vision is today as urgent as ever. While Jim Crow and the cruelties of overt segregation are now largely unimaginable, much remains to be done. And the moral outrage of Americans, that made King’s work so politically effective? We don't do that any more. We can torture thousands of mostly innocent Iraqis and Afghans, in plain sight, and nobody is held accountable. A sheriff in Arizona can target Latinos for years and, untouched by the feds, be considered a hero for it by his racist fans. It'd take a whole lot more than Bull Connor’s police dogs to make the news today.
The saddest loss in the modern narrative of Dr. King’s career is the story of who he was: a man without wealth, without elected office, who managed as a single individual to change the world simply through the strength of his moral convictions. His power came from his faith, and his willingness to act on what he knew to be right. That story could inspire many millions to similar action -- if only it were told. We could each be Dr. King.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolent martyr to reconciliation and justice, has become a Hallmark Card, a warm, fuzzy, feel-good invocation of neighborliness, a literally whitewashed file photo for sneakers or soda commercials, a reprieve for post-holiday shoppers, an excuse for a three-day weekend, a cardboard cutout used for photo ops by dissembling politicians of all colors.
Dr. King deserves better. We all do.