You know the old saying, right? First they say that you're a Communist and a thug. Then they reluctantly OK a national holiday in your name, Then they claim you were really one of them. OK, actually that's not an old saying at all -- but it's been irritating in recent years to see folks who -- a) had they been around in 1965 and b) had there been an infrastructure of Fox News, right-wing radio, and blogs -- would have been denouncing Dr. Martin Luther King as a common criminal 50 years ago now holding him up as a hero -- and insisting he was really just like them!
You can trace this back to (who else?) Ronald Reagan. Although let's give the Gipper a small dollop of credit -- he did sign the national holiday for King into law, after all -- he turned around and insisted that the activist's most-repeated line about judging by the content of character meant that he opposed affirmative action (he didn't). Soon the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck were piling on, claiming that the most important thing about King was that he opposed gay marriage (although arguably his closest adviser was gay) or abortion or that he wanted religion in America's public square. They even put up billboards claiming that King was a Republican (he wasn't). This fact-addled fog could almost make one forget the bus boycott, the fire hoses, or the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
But in the end, the far right's misappropriation of the MLK legacy is just comic relief. More insidious, in my opinion, are the moderate folks, many of them well-meaning, who confuse sainthood with sanitation, who want to make a man of peaceful, radical change into a man of peace -- and keep the change. Some of this is Monday morning quarterbacking from folks who would have been afraid of backing -- or maybe would have even opposed -- King's crusades for integration, voting rights, and later to end war and poverty.
History, after all, is written by the winners. The big corporations who've would have run 100 mph from Birmingham or Selma 50 years ago today trip over themselves to embrace King -- but only as long as his words are ripped out of context. Their Martin Luther King is the "Kumbaya MLK" -- who spoke of brotherhood and peace on earth...and nothing else.
The real Martin Luther King was a warrior against income inequality. He said:
Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn't enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?
The real Martin Luther King battled against war and the U.S. military-industrial complex. He said:
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
On the National Mall in August 1963, literally seconds before his immortal words on judging on the content of character, Dr. King said this: "We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality." That's why I scratch my head over all the pundits who insist that he would have had nothing to do with the post-Ferguson protests and #BlackLivesMatter. No one can say with any certainty, of course, but I think it's much, much, much more likely that King would be at the front of the "die-ins," joining those who block off freeways. The people who called the Ferguson demonstrators "thugs" today and the folks who called King "a Commie" in 1965 are either a) the exact same people or b) their spiritual and moral descendants. Anyone who claims differently is lying.
Last night, I finally saw the movie Selma (hey, I didn't want to see it on the first night and be a stereotype of myself) and while I do agree with the critics who say that Lyndon Johnson's acts around civil rights and King were badly misrepresented, the overall movie is a powerful reminder of what social change really requires. The hymn singing and hand holding is a fraction of the pain (King is punched in the face), the moments of doubt and uncertainty, and the receiving end of pure hatred that made up what the civil rights crusaders called, simply. "The Struggle."
Today, The Struggle for a fair and just America continues. Thousands of people are marching, sitting in, or raising their voices to #ReclaimMLK, including thousands who will take to the streets here in Philadelphia. They have nothing against volunteering at soup kitchens or cleaning up lots, but they believe that Dr. King's mission requires making folks uncomfortable every now and then, that the best way to memorialize MLK is not so much with granite statues but but getting your shoes a little dirty. That you can't sing "Kumbaya" until you're done with "We Shall Overcome."