HUTCHINSON Snatching A Piece of King’s Legacy

The moment Coretta Scott King got wind that a group of black clergy in Miami had circulated a flier with the picture of her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. to 300 black churches in Miami-Dade County denouncing gay rights she hit the ceiling. The African-American Council of Concerned Clergy evoked King’s name in their fight to dump Miami-Dade’s human rights ordinance. It’s scheduled for a vote September 10. The group claimed that gays were expropriating the civil rights cause to push their agenda. In a public statement condemning the group, Coretta King insisted that King would be a champion of gay rights if alive.

Given King’s relentless, and uncompromising, battle against discrimination during his life, it’s absolutely incredible to imagine that he would back an anti-gay campaign. Yet, it’s hardly a surprise that a group would be brazen enough to enlist King as their ally. Since his murder 34 years ago, legions of groups and individuals have snatched at King’s picture, name and words to push their cause, agenda, issue, and even commercial products. They smother themselves in King’s mantle because they know that many still rank him next to God as the embodiment of truth and purity. Attorney-General John Ashcroft, for instance, whom civil rights leaders lambaste for his past anti-civil rights stance and racially insensitive comments, calls King his hero.

The most blatant and offensive snatch of King’s name, however, came during the battle over affirmative action in California in 1996. Opponents of affirmative action grabbed at the oft-repeated line in his famed "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington in August 1963 in which he called on Americans to judge individuals on the content of their character and not the color of their skin as proof that he’d be on their side. This deliberately distorted the spirit and intent of King's words, since at the time affirmative action had not seeped into the nation's vocabulary and quotas and goals were not issues of public debate. Yet, in a literal interpretation of King’s words, he is the ultimate egalitarian who condemned any form of racial favoritism.

America’s top anti-affirmative action hit man, Ward Connerly, has virtually made King’s name and words his mantra in his national campaign to torpedo affirmative action. Connerly even calls his group the American Civil Rights Coalition. And it’s almost certain that King’s words will figure prominently in his new campaign to pass his racial privacy initiative that bans the collection of racial data by government agencies. The initiative could qualify for the California ballot next year. Conservative groups battling affirmative action programs in other states have taken their cue from Connerly and routinely sprinkle King’s words in their literature, and cast themselves as champions of equality.

While Coretta King has fiercely guarded her husband’s name and legacy against usurpers, she and other family members have been blasted for allegedly profiteering off of King. They have been accused of pocketing millions in tourist revenues from the King Center in Atlanta, and threatening lawsuits against anyone who infringes on their copyright they hold on his speeches and writings. As King’s lawful heirs they are entitled to do anything to protect his name and image, and even make money in the process. But the fact is that King would have been appalled at anyone who tried to make money off his work.

He railed against the penchant for lavish personal spending, luxury apartments and fancy homes by some staffers in his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King increasingly incorporated anti-capitalist rhetoric in his speeches, and denounced American society as greedy and materialistic. He called America "corrupt" and demanded "a fundamental redistribution of the wealth."

But if King’s words can be easily bent, twisted and turned for questionable causes, it’s because he can't be neatly shoehorned into an ideological box. There is enough paradox and ambivalence in King's positions for liberals, conservatives and hucksters to praise and damn. At various times, King railed against and embraced black militants. He advocated conservative self-help programs and socialist wealth distribution. He applauded violent anti-colonial and national liberation movements and championed non-violent change. The paradox and ambivalence was glaringly apparent in his private life. His near divine moral lashing of America were wildly at odds with his questionable personal sexual conduct. Not surprisingly, King's solutions to many of the big ticket racial and class problems that plague America is a conflicting mix of idealism and hardnosed pragmatism. And it’s this conflict that stamped King’s tumultuous life and legacy that gives anyone with an ax to grind so much ammunition to claim him as their own.

Despite Coretta King’s sharp rebuke, the black clergy group in Miami gave no indication that they would withdraw their questionable flier or back away from their claim that King would be on their side in attempting to repeal Miami’s gay rights ordinance. Rest assured that it won’t be the last time that King will be snatched to aid someone’s dubious cause.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).


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