King Abuse

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.

9 thoughts on “King Abuse

  1. Skink

    In accepting the Nobel Prize in 1964, which actually meant something then, Dr. King spoke of truth:

    “I think Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of a curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners – all those to whom beauty is truth and truth beauty – and in whose eyes the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.”

    Wherever truth goes, so goes humanity. But what when truth is hijacked? Dr. King’s legacy has grown to myth, and so often myth has become truth. When myth is truth, then truth can be anything, which is nothing. Our modern-day civil rights battle is one over truth. Historical truth, along with most truth, is set-aside if it doesn’t jibe with the assumed conclusion. Myth takes its place.

    You’re right: Dr. King’s legacy has been hijacked. He joins a long list of others.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      Back then, the word “truth” was synonymous with factual. There was no “my truth” or “your truth,” and there was no legitimacy to believing in a “truth” that wasn’t true. Of the many things that have died since 1964, the ability to communicate coherently might be the most tragic, but there will not be a day of rememberance for definitions.

      Reply
      1. Jake

        Glad you bring this up because it’s necessary to point out this:

        “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.”

        …Is your opinion.

        Reply
        1. SHG Post author

          I realize how shy and reluctant I’ve been in expressing my views, but even so, I would have thought I’ve been fairly clear that social justice and identity politics are illiberal, unprincipled and untenable. Yet, you still have to ask?

          Reply
  2. the other rob

    Yesterday, I made a poor joke about being judged by the contents of one’s shopping cart rather than the color of one’s credit card.

    It didn’t go down very well. Not on grounds of taste or quality, but because nobody in the group was sufficiently familiar with the speech to get the reference.

    The others were not children. How is this possible?

    Reply
  3. B. McLeod

    In his book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” Dr. King made plain that he supported some variant of what has come to be called “affirmative action.”

    “Among the many vital jobs to be done, the nation must not only radically readjust its attitude toward he Negro in the compelling present, but must incorporate in its planning some compensatory consideration for the handicaps he has inherited from the past.”

    See, “Why We Can’t Wait,” Chapter 8 (“the Days to Come”), subchapters III to end.

    What we can’t know is what Dr. King would think fifty-five years into the effort, if he could see what we can see today. What we can foresee is that his opinions would likely be disregarded now, as one more toxic, cisgendered, Christian male who disrespected and exploited women. He would be a target and an obstacle of “#MeToo,” and also a distraction from the urgent mandate to address the needs of the world’s suffering LBGT population, particularly the [Ed. Notes].

    As a dead martyr, King is malleable. Had he lived, he would have been a positive inconvenience, and the fanatical leftists in the “big tent” of today would have had to crucify him to punish the outmoded wrongness of his beliefs.

    Reply

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