Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

King Day

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Appropriating the Past - The Furnace of Optimism Hijacked

What to make of the Martin Luther King Day that passed with only a few minor ripples?

Last year on Martin Luther King Day we got, from Taylor Branch, his third and final volume of the King years, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 - with the lead review in the Los Angeles Times Sunday book review.  Anne-Marie O'Connor there got Taylor Branch on the phone -

    Race was, and is, still scary to a lot of people. King's enemies knew that he spoke to a lot of people, and a lot of people agreed with him. He was mesmerizing, because of the timbre of his voice and his words. His voice was like a furnace of optimism, trying to triumph over despair. He defined something that was strong enough to offer hope in the face of suffering.

    He was living in a time when people got lynched for almost nothing, and there was no expectation there was going to be justice. Black people were largely invisible. To be a symbol of that hope over despair is an amazing thing.  

Branch saw what was going on, as O'Connor notes - 

    The America that emerges from Branch's pages is on the razor's edge of history, and it could be cutting and ugly. King's demands for racial equality were met in Southern newspapers with grotesque cartoons whose smiling minstrels were the face of virulent hatred.

    FBI agents slink around "At Canaan's Edge" like goons in a noir novel, spreading lies in a relentlessly hostile campaign to discredit him on every conceivable level, a far cry from the frequent Hollywood portrayals of civil-rights-era agents as white knights doing battle against an anonymous black backdrop.

    One of the more dubious FBI smears was an attempt to portray him as an associate of Muhammad Ali. An FBI agent timidly pointed out the obvious: The plan might backfire because many people regarded the boxer as a folk hero. But his supervisors went ahead with the plan.

    FBI agents wiretapped King's hotel room and phone conversations for years to record information about his infidelities, which they unsuccessfully tried to disseminate in the press. Branch says the FBI even tried to dissuade King from traveling to Oslo, Norway, to accept the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize by blackmailing him for his personal life. In Branch's eyes, the FBI was "blackmailing him toward suicide." 

Well. James Earl Ray took care of things so it didn't come to that.  But the damage was done. King had started something.

Taylor Branch had also offered a long assessment of King and his legacy, Globalizing King's Legacy, published in the New York Times on that holiday, and the following day in the Times' Paris newspaper, the International Herald Tribune.  Everyone honed in on what comes near the end of the piece - 

    We could also restore Dr. King's role in the continuing story of freedom to its rightful prominence, emphasizing that the best way to safeguard democracy is to practice it. And we must recognize that the accepted tradeoff between freedom and security is misguided, because our values are the essence of our strength. If dungeons, brute force and arbitrary rule were the keys to real power, Saudi Arabia would be a model for the future instead of the past.  

One year later and we're closer to being Saudi Arabia ourselves.

And think what happened back in King's day -

    Parallel tides opened doors for the first female students at some universities and most private colleges, then the military academies. In 1972, civil rights agitation over doctrines of equal souls produced the first public ordination of a female rabbi in the United States, and the Episcopal Church soon introduced female clergy members in spite of schismatic revolts to preserve religious authority for men. Pauli Murray, a lawyer who was one of the pioneer priests, had pursued a legal appeal that in 1966 overturned several state laws flatly prohibiting jury service by women. "The principle announced seems so obvious today," Dr. Murray would write in a memoir, "that it is difficult to remember the dramatic break the court was making."

    Overseas, as an amalgam of forces suddenly dissolved the Soviet empire atop its mountain of nuclear weapons, Dr. King's message echoed in the strains of "We Shall Overcome" heard along the Berlin Wall and the streets of Prague. Likewise, South African apartheid melted without the long-dreaded racial Armageddon, on miraculous healing words from a former prisoner, Nelson Mandela. Students shocked the world from Tiananmen Square with nonviolent demonstrations modeled on American sit-ins, planting seeds of democracy within the authoritarian shell of Chinese Communism.

    These and other sweeping trends from the civil rights era have transformed daily life in many countries, and now their benefit is scarcely contested. 

And now? Branch says "the political discourse behind them is atrophied."  And of course we have the same problem, even if King spoke about Vietnam - 

    And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.  

All that and more was discussed here last year.

And one year later?  Over at Wonkette there's MLK's Dream: White Guys Pandering -

    It's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which has always meant one thing: old white guys babbling abstractly about equality at black churches. Today's slumming sons of privilege include Senator Chris "Mr. Yuck" Dodd and former Senator Lonesome John Edwards.

    Dodd made his traitor-come-lately anti-war talk at Springfield Baptist Church. Edwards, more of a natural at shameless symbolism appropriation, was a bit flashier: "Edwards addressed about 1,200 parishioners Sunday at Riverside Church, a multiracial, politically active Manhattan congregation where King delivered his famous "Beyond Vietnam" speech on April 4, 1967. King was assassinated exactly one year later."

    We'll avoid the more morbid joke and just point out that when King gave his speech, he wasn't angling to increase his name-recognition in Iowa, and he didn't obliquely trash Hubert Humphrey.

    Keep the dream alive! Surely there's a second-cousin of King's Joe Biden can book for a quick evening press conference, right?

So King is useful now, if you need votes.  Edwards and Dodd know that, as in this -

    GREENVILLE, South Carolina (CNN) -- Sen. Chris Dodd, the latest entrant into the 2008 Democratic field, used the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend to speak out against President Bush's decision to send more U.S. troops to Iraq.

    "It is time now that we have done enough," the Connecticut senator said Sunday, his remarks receiving a standing ovation from a packed Springfield Baptist Church. "We have provided an opportunity for these people: It's time enough to come back."

    Referring to the White House plan to dispatch 21,500 more U.S. troops, Dodd urged his Senate and House colleagues to pass a binding resolution "that would say this is the wrong decision to make, this is the wrong place for these young men and women to be."

    Dodd used his time at the pulpit to introduce himself to the largely African-American audience, speaking at length about his family, his work on behalf of minorities and what he called his life-long commitment to equality.

    "As a white man in the U.S. Senate, I understand the lessons that need to be learned," he said, promising to return to the Palmetto State "many times over the next year."

Well, at least King is not forgotten.  He's now a marketing tool.  Be contrite and use him.  Here Hillary Clinton rips into John Edwards for the speech to the "back folk" - defending her vote to go to war in Iraq.  From beyond the grave King is, one presumes, not impressed.  These white folks are such a pain.

And it's not just the white Democrats arguing over the King coffin about which of them is doing, or at least saying, what the man would do, or at least say, were he still alive. Now, as Digby at Hullabaloo points out, the conservatives have appropriated the body of the dead man for their own purposes - saying that he was really a "personal responsibility" conservative, and since he was religious (of course) he would approve of banning gay marriage and defend those who bomb abortion clinics and move this county toward being a true Christian theocracy where women are modest and silent, taxes are low and welfare and all social programs are abolished, and we wage preemptive war on those nations where they've somehow chosen the wrong values, rejecting God's gift, free-market capitalism with folks who vote for everything but what harms economically key corporations.

Yeah, right. So what's the true story? The facts are clear.

So in case you forgot the old days, now when these conservative folk "appropriate liberal icons and language and then disingenuously hit us over the heads with them," pull out Rick Perlstein's reminder in that National Review for a reality check -

    When Martin Luther King was buried in Atlanta, the live television coverage lasted seven and a half hours. President Johnson announced a national day of mourning: "Together, a nation united and a nation caring and a nation concerned and a nation that thinks more of the nation's interests than we do of any individual self-interest or political interest - that nation can and shall and will overcome." Richard Nixon called King "a great leader - a man determined that the American Negro should win his rightful place alongside all others in our nation." Even one of King's most beastly political enemies, Mississippi Representative William Colmer, chairman of the House rules committee, honored the president's call to unity by terming the murder "a dastardly act."

    Others demurred. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond wrote his constituents, "[W]e are now witnessing the whirlwind sowed years ago when some preachers and teachers began telling people that each man could be his own judge in his own case." Another, even more prominent conservative said it was just the sort of "great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they'd break."

    That was Ronald Reagan, the governor of California, arguing that King had it coming. King was the man who taught people they could choose which laws they'd break - in his soaring exegesis on St. Thomas Aquinas from that Birmingham jail in 1963: "Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. ... Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong."

    That's not what you hear from conservatives today, of course. What you get now are convoluted and fantastical tributes arguing that, properly understood, Martin Luther King was actually one of them - or would have been, had he lived. But, if we are going to have a holiday to honor history, we might as well honor history. We might as well recover the true story. Conservatives - both Democrats and Republicans - hated King's doctrines. Hating them was one of the litmus tests of conservatism.

    The idea was expounded most systematically in a 567-page book that came out shortly after King's assassination, House Divided: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, by one of the right's better writers, Lionel Lokos, and from the conservative movement's flagship publisher, Arlington House. "He left his country a legacy of lawlessness," Lokos concluded. "The civil disobedience glorified by Martin Luther King [meant] that each man had the right to put a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on laws that met with his favor." Lokos laid the rise of black power, with its preachments of violence, at King's feet. This logic followed William F. Buckley, who, in a July 20, 1967 column titled "King-Sized Riot In Newark," imagined the dialogue between a rioter and a magistrate:

    "You do realize that there are laws against burning down delicatessen stores? Especially when the manager and his wife are still inside the store?"

    "Laws Schmaws. Have you never heard of civil disobedience? Have you never heard of Martin Luther King?"

Yep - that is what all that Republican "law and order" stuff started - the key words in the Republican "Southern Strategy." As Digby notes - "They turned the man who followed Gandhi's precepts of peaceful civil disobedience into an inciter of violence. Neat trick."

Hey, it worked.

Perlstein's comment -

    The conservative argument, consistent and ubiquitous, was that King, claiming the mantle of moral transcendence, was actually the vector for moral relativism. They made it by reducing the greatest moral epic of the age to a churlish exercise in bean-counting. Shortly after the 1965 Selma voting-rights demonstrations, Klansmen shot dead one of the marchers, a Detroit housewife named Viola Liuzza, for the sin of riding in a car with a black man. Vice President Hubert Humphrey attended her funeral. No fair! Buckley cried, noting that a white cop had been shot by a black man in Hattiesburg shortly thereafter; "Humphrey did not appear at his funeral or even offer condolences." He complained, too, of the news coverage: "The television cameras showed police nightsticks descending upon the bodies of the demonstrators, but they did not show the defiance ... of those who provoked them beyond the endurance that we tend to think of as human." (In actual fact, sheriff's officers charged into the crowd on horseback swinging rubber tubes wrapped in barbed wire.)

    By now you may be asking: What is the point of this unpleasant exercise? Shouldn't there be a statute of limitations on ideological sins? Well, not every conservative wrong has been righted. It's true that conservatives today don't sound much like Buckley in the '60s, but they still haven't figured King out: Andrew Busch of the Ashbrook Center for Public Policy, writing about King's exegesis on just and unjust laws, said, "In these few sentences, King demolishes much of the philosophical foundation of contemporary liberalism" (liberals are moral relativists, you see, and King was appealing to transcendent moral authority); Busch (speaking for reams of similar banality you can find by searching National Review Online) also said that "he rallied his followers with an explicitly religious message" and thus "stands as a stinging rebuke to those today who argue that religion and politics should never mix"; and Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation wrote in National Review Online that "[a]n agenda that advocates quotas, counting by race and set-asides takes us away from King's vision" (not true, as historians have demonstrated). Still, why not honor their conversion on its own terms?

    The answer is, if you don't mind, a question of moral relativism versus transcendence. When it comes to Martin Luther King, conservatives are still mere bean-counters. We must honor King because there wasn't a day in his life after 1955 when he didn't risk being cut down in cold blood and still stood steadfast. Conservatives break down what should be irreducible in this lesson into discrete terms - King believed in points X, Y, and Z - but now they chalk up the final sum on the positive side of the ledger. But this misses the point: King alone among contemporary heroes is worthy of a national holy day not because he mixed faith and politics, nor because he enunciated a sentimental dream. It was because he represented something truly terrifying.

    When King was shuttling back and forth to Memphis in support of striking garbage workers, Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington typified the conservative establishment's understanding of him: He was "training 3,000 people to start riots." What looks today obviously like transcendent justice looked to conservatives then like anarchy. The conservative response to King - to demonize him in the '60s and to domesticate him today - has always been essentially the same: It has been about coping with the fear that seekers of justice may overturn what we see as the natural order and still be lionized. But if we manage to forget that, sometimes, doing things that terrify people is the only recourse to injustice, there is no point in having a Martin Luther King Day at all.

Digby -

    I have come to realize that conservatism's single most identifiable characteristic is its fear (of progress, the other - everything.) And nothing scared conservatives more than the great progressive Martin Luther King, who faced them down peacefully with grim determination and awesome courage. Why, if African Americans could overcome, then what was to stop anybody from believing that "liberty and justice for all" applied to them too. Thanks, Reverend King for making it so.

But you cannot stop the white guys pandering.

Of course they won't be able to do that much longer -

    In a recent survey of college students on U.S. civic literacy, more than 81 percent knew that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was expressing hope for "racial justice and brotherhood" in his historic "I Have a Dream" speech.

    That's the good news.

    Most of the rest surveyed thought King was advocating the abolition of slavery.

    The findings indicate that years of efforts by primary and secondary schools to steep young people in the basics of the civil rights leader's life and activities have resulted in a mixed bag. Most college students know who he is - even if they're not quite clear on what he worked to achieve.

Politicians will, it seems, just have to find someone else to appropriate. Let the man rest in peace. He did his work.

This item posted - in its final version - January 21, 2007

[King Day]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik