Exploiting MLK Jr.

The scramble to snatch a piece of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy has not diminished one bit in the 20 years since his birthday was first celebrated as a national holiday. Ironically, Ronald Reagan was the first to grab at it -- he fought tooth and nail against passage of the King holiday bill.

After insinuating that King was a Communist, Reagan signed it only after Congress passed it overwhelmingly and virtually insured that the bill was veto-proof. But then Reagan reversed gears and apologized to a deeply hurt Coretta Scott King, King's widow, and effusively praised King as a champion of freedom and democracy. Reagan said that King's struggle for equality was his struggle too.

During the furious battles that raged over affirmative action in the 1990s, conservatives snatched a flowery line from King's "I Have a Dream" speech and boasted that he would have opposed racial quotas, preferences and, by extension, affirmative action if he had lived. It was a wild stretch. King almost certainly would have been a vigorous supporter of affirmative action if he had lived. But in his speeches and writings, he also stressed personal responsibility, self-help, strong families and religious values as goals that blacks should strive to attain.

In the late 1960s when King denounced the Vietnam war, embraced militant union struggles, and barnstormed around the country blasting wealth and class privilege, the red-baiters and professional King haters branded him a Communist. The Lyndon Johnson White House turned hostile. Corporate and foundation supporters slowly turned off the money spigot. The NAACP, Urban League, black Democrats, and some in King's own organization turned their backs on him. During his last days, King spent much of his time fundraising and defending his policies against the critics within and without his organization. The backbiting, carping of and backpedaling from King -- not by his enemies, but by some of his one-time friends and supporters -- got worse when he railed against the penchant for lavish personal spending, luxury apartments and fancy homes by some of his group's staffers.

In his last installment on King, “At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68,” Taylor Branch tells how King stormed out of a planning meeting for his Poor People's March, in fury at the attacks directed at him by some of his top aides who wanted to scrap the March. The issue of uniting masses of poor people for economic uplift smacked of class war and was too risky and dangerous; they feared that it would hopelessly alienate their Democratic Party boosters. King was unfazed by their criticism and hurled another broadside at them for their personal egoism, selfishness and opportunism. King's civil rights friends weren't the only ones that took shots at him.

Many black ministers joined in the King bash. At the National Baptist Convention in 1961, then (and now) the largest black religious group in America, King and a band of dissidents challenged the convention's leaders to give more active support to the civil rights battles. They wanted none of that. They flung threats and insults at King, and the civil rights advocate-ministers engaged in fisticuffs with them and slandered King as a "hoodlum and crook."

When the dust settled, King was summarily booted out of the organization, and he set up a rival ministers' group. Even after King's death and subsequent placement among America's heroes, many black ministers remained silent on the assault on civil liberties protections, the gutting of job and social programs, and U.S. militarism. These were all issues that King relentlessly and loudly spoke out against when he was alive.

In an even more insulting twist, many black ministers -- including one of King's daughters -- shamelessly and unapologetically evoked King's name to pound gay rights and same-sex marriage. There's not a shred of evidence that King would have been a gay rights opponent. Coretta even demanded that one group of ministers cease using his name to back an anti-gay referendum in Miami a few years ago. Yet they still snatch at his legacy and hail MLK Jr. as one of their own.

Then there's the King holiday. Though many corporations and government agencies plaster full-page ads in black newspapers that extol King on his holiday, touting how much he's done for them, the holiday is still rock-bottom among national holidays that business and government agencies observe. An annual survey by BNA Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based business news publisher, revealed that about one-quarter of businesses give their workers a day off with pay. That number pales even in comparison to the next least celebrated holiday, President's Day.

King is no different from other towering historical figures, especially those that had the bad fortune to fall to an assassin's bullet. The hypocrisy, mythmaking, embellishments and outright distortions quickly kick in. Everyone wants a piece of the fallen legend to puff up their importance and whatever social and political axe they seek to grind.


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