Monday, January 21, 2013

Who hasn't tried to co-opt MLK?

As we celebrate MLK Day in America today (and the second inauguration of Barack Obama, one that is definitely being linked to MLK on a few levels...more on that later), I started thinking: why do we know so little about the real King and, as a result, why are so many able to co-opt his messages?

The MLK we're told about (that I've written about before - click here and here to read more) was a man who told us to live together in peace, for whites and blacks to embrace each other, and let our kids play together. This isn't a bad message at all, of course. However, we rarely get the more complicated politics that MLK touched on. He understood the connection between racism, economics, and politics. "I have a dream" is very special and historical...but the dream MLK wanted us to get to involved addressing war, poverty, and the nature of our political system. He was pro-labor (he was assassinated while supporting sanitation workers on strike in Memphis). He was critical of the economic divide in America. He was staunchly opposed to the Vietnam war, and not supportive of our foreign policy in general. He thought we exploited the poor at home and abroad. He had problems with moderate white American leaders, who would be willing to compromise on social issues to bring about a "peace" without justice. So...yeah, not as warm and fuzzy as we hear about. Of course, reality makes him (and those who fought alongside him - one man does not make a movement) far more courageous, noble, and worthy of rememberance. It wasn't easy to fight against segregation. Fighting against segregation, Vietnam, poverty, aspects of capitalism, political dealmaking...yeah, that's a lot more challenging.

But the lack of depth re: what we're taught about MLK makes his message very easy for people to claim as being in the spirit of what they are doing. Glenn Beck tried to absurdly claim he was following in MLK's footsteps with his rally in 2010 on the 45th anniversary of the March on Washington. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Defense claimed MLK might be supportive of the perpetual wars we are currently engaged in. This year, gun advocates are claiming MLK would have stood with them because guns could have helped end slavery sooner - never mind the fact that that is one of the most outlandish counterfactuals ever, and that MLK was...slain by a gun. It seems like lots of people in America with political agendas try to connect their cause to King's. Sometimes, the connections are valid, but most of the time, they're absurdly wrong. These crazy assertions happen because we aren't taught about the real MLK, a complicated man who stood for a lot more than just racial harmony.  Had we been given a more accurate and full view of who he was, we would probably appreciate and honor him even more. We also might protest a lot more.

My final point...I find the efforts to connect President Obama to MLK interesting. Wrong, but interesting. This year, there are plenty of links in the inauguration events. One of the bibles Obama is being sworn in on was MLKs. Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evans, gave the invocation. Also...the obvious is that inauguration is happening on MLK Day. However, if MLK was alive today, I'm pretty sure he'd be protesting many of Obama's policies. Obama has done little on poverty and race, having said less on these topics than any Democratic president in a long time. The Obama administration has ratcheted up American militarism abroad, perhaps best exemplified by the Drone War, a topic the press has given the silent treatment. They recently found a way to exempt themselves from their secret rules re: drone strikes, which is...well...stupefying. They continue to attack our civil liberties on a wide scale. These were core issues that MLK on; it seems highly unlikely that he'd support any of Obama's moves on them. Yes, there obviously is a connection between MLK and Obama - without MLK (and Malcolm X, and countless others who aren't widely known), Barack Obama would probably have never had a chance at being President. Yes, these leaders inevitably inspired our current President, and I believe he probably still believes in many things that they fought for (today's inaugural address was more populist than normal). He hasn't implemented them yet, of course, and that's the issue. But that becomes easier when there is no pressure. LBJ was pushed by MLK and the civil rights movement (and the Poor People's Campaign and many other social and political movements at the time) to get us the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society programs. Who's pushing Obama to come through? If we passively allow a false connection between MLK and Obama to occur, we're not helping matters at all.

So, this MLK Day, make a point to learn a little bit more about who King really was. Here are 17 quotes from King that we almost never hear. Try to incorporate his actions and words into your own consciousness. Oh, and be sure to teach others, because they sure won't be getting the full picture of MLK based on the sugar-coated version of the good Doctor we get on MLK Day.

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