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