Dead icons are fair game for the living, as there’s no one to dispute them. Spouses may try. Children too. But no one speaks for them, except those who have no authority to do so because they are distant and disconnected. The passionate will see them as fodder for their beliefs, seize upon the lofty but vague words of their quotes to bolster their certainty that if the icon was still alive, he would stand beside them.
Today is Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. day, and so he will be abused for the cause.
Put aside whatever aspects of his personal life that might have impaired him from hosting the Oscars, doing stand-up comedy, avoiding social annihilation. Don’t let the hypocrisy upset you, that his personal misadventures get a pass for reasons that aren’t supposed to matter. Better that was the case for all historic figures, for all icons, but it’s not.
Would King be a warrior for social justice? He was a smart man, an exceptionally brave man. He faced the clubs, the dogs, the guns, the mobs and refused to back down. On August 28, 1963, he uttered these words:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
At the time, racism was flagrant and socially acceptable. People were denied opportunity because of the color of their skin. Some were hated. Some were just treated as some lesser species of human. It was an active hatred for some, and it was just banal background noise for others.
What one seeks when denied the opportunity to be seen as a human being may be very different than what one seeks when you have a seat at the table. At first, one sees the fight for the chance to not be excluded from society. But once one is less excluded, issues remain unaddressed. There are the remnants of racist society that continue to stare in your face, the ones that white America takes for granted but still cut black America.
The quote above can be used to argue that King would never support identity politics, where the fight went from wishing for a colorblind society to demanding an identitarian society, one that divvied up the bounty based on the color of one’s skin. Today, the message isn’t merely forsaken, but offensive. To ignore skin color is to deny the legacy of racism. We won’t get off that easy.
The social justice movement has taken ownership of Martin Luther King. Whether he would have given himself to it is irrelevant. He never had the opportunity. That he would have supported some of their goals seems uncontroversial, but the equality he sought isn’t the equity they seek. That doesn’t mean he would not have evolved from demanding equal opportunity to equal outcome. Or perhaps even reparations for historic racism and America’s “original sin.”
It would seem that a man as strong, as smart, as Martin Luther King would recognize that as much as these outcomes are appealing, they defy logic and principle. It would seem that he would have seen that these demands are unsustainable and will undermine all that he worked for. He sought to eliminate racial division and hatred. Social justice requires it.
Would King have agreed that the goal of equal opportunity would morph into a societal shift where the color of one’s skin no longer meant suffering the detriment of racism, but gave rise to an entitlement? The social justice movement believes this with absolute certainty, and embraces this historic icon as its spiritual leader.
We don’t know what Martin Luther King would have thought, would have done, had the assasin James Earl Ray not put a bullet in him at the Lorraine Hotel. Surely, I don’t know. Others, however, will claim an insight they can’t possibly have because it serves their purpose and comforts them.
Maybe they are right. Maybe his words from 1963 would have evolved to the point where the most important thing was the color of their skin, not the content of their character. I will not dispute this because to do so would be to abuse his memory.
Having spent much of my career standing next to black and brown people, good people, smart people, but still people, there is no doubt in my mind that but for racism, some of them might have made enormous contributions to society. Not all. Some weren’t good. Some weren’t smart. But all were people. Just like me. I was no better than they were. I was just white. And they were no worse than I was. They were just black and brown.
I judged them by the content of their character, as Martin Luther King said I should. Today, I’m told I was wrong to do so. I have no idea what King would have said about that, and I will not abuse his memory by pretending otherwise.