A Dream Distorted: Reflections on the Hijacking of Martin Luther King Jr.

A slightly different version of this article was published on ZNet, www.zmag.org, 2/15/02

Another January has come and gone, and with it, another celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year, as with the past ten, I once again had the pleasure of addressing a number of audiences during a two-week period of community and campus commemorations across the country. While much of my presentation was the same as always — focused on reminding the audience of the substantial unfinished business in the ongoing fight against racism — there was also at least one significant difference: this year, the U.S. has been bombing one of the poorest nations on Earth since October.

Given Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence, even in the face of attack by others, I felt obliged to mention the likely opposition to said bombing that would have been part of King’s current message were he still alive. King, after all, understood terrorism and faced it down regularly. Yet he did so without resort to arms, knowing that rarely if ever has true peace, security or justice been won at gunpoint. Those who would claim that fanatical segregationists were any less dangerous than Osama bin Laden and his minions, never fished black bodies out of rivers in Mississippi, nor picked up the pieces of bombed out churches. They have forgotten the swollen face of Emmett Till, the bullet-ridden car of Viola Liuzzo, or what Billie Holiday called the “strange fruit” found hanging from tree limbs, surrounded by conscience-numbed whites, admiring their craft the way others might gaze upon paintings in the Louvre.

The fact that King in his last years came to realize that his own government “was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” was worth mentioning, or so I thought. Needless to say, many in my audiences felt otherwise. Although most persons of color responded to such remarks with agreement, for most whites, the mention of King’s anti-militarism and condemnations of America’s actions abroad were more than they could stand. Many wrote angry letters to those responsible for inviting a speaker who would say such scandalous things.

They wanted the safe Dr. King. The pleasant Dr. King. The Dr. King who they seem to think would pat them on the head for breaking bread at a banquet dinner with black people. The Dr. King who they seem to think sought nothing more than a good, spirited chorus of Kumbaya, or perhaps a burger at the Woolworth’s counter. In short, they wanted the Dr. King spoken of by their President: a man who had been too busy drinking with his Deke buddies at Yale to have personally lent his voice to the fight against racism, but who thinks nothing of invoking the good Doctor’s name now.

That particular Dr. King — the one with whom the nation’s frat-boy in chief is more comfortable — is one who, to listen to the President’s speech about him, might as well have died in 1963. For Bush mentioned not one word of King’s activities, nor quoted him at all from any speech or writing in the last five years of his life, and with good reason. For it was during those years that King raised serious questions about the moral propriety of capitalism, and insisted, “Any nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

For far too much of white America, accepting Dr. King and celebrating him is something they seek to do on their own terms, not his. They accept part of the man, and part of his message, but not all of it. They certainly don’t wish to acknowledge King’s decided lack of support for nationalistic patriotism the likes of which we have seen since September 11. To wit, his claim in December of 1967 that “our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation. This means we must develop a world perspective.”

Of course, rejecting the totality of King’s vision is nothing new for whites, most of whom never did like the Reverend all that much. In 1963, two-thirds of whites polled said that King and the movement were pushing for too much, too soon. Now, of course, white America embraces the King of 1963, because he seems so safe and ecumenical. And with the luxury of thirty-four years in the grave, they needn’t worry that he will be correcting them for their conditional support anytime soon.

But even accolades for the early King are usually not rooted in a clear understanding of what the man stood for. For most whites, all they know of King is the “I Have A Dream” speech, and even then only one line, taken out of context and interpreted as a mere plea for color-blindness. It is that Dr. King whom conservatives, for example, have convinced themselves would have opposed affirmative action: another myth that whites in my holiday audiences weren’t too happy to hear exploded.

A few weeks ago, after delivering an MLK day address at Dakota State University, an irate math professor who hadn’t attended the talk, but watched a portion of it on the Internet, e-mailed the event’s organizer to complain. Among the many sources of his agitation, was my statement that King would have supported affirmative action, and even reparations for the history of slavery and Jim Crow: a position he insisted was not at all certain, and which he sought to rebut via an archived discussion board post from David Horowitz, the resident gasbag at FrontPageMag.com.

Horowitz, who relies on financial support from the kind of right-wing conservatives who despised King and actively opposed the civil rights movement, claims that King detested any programs of “racial preferences,” and would have been a sworn enemy of affirmative action. Of course, David also claims to be a true apostle of King, even while proudly displaying links for websites that allow one to slap cartoon likenesses of Hillary Clinton and Osama bin Laden: so the fact that he utterly miscomprehends the man he claims to consider a hero should come as no surprise.

But in fact, despite the claims of conservatives to speak for the true King in their opposition to affirmative action, King himself was clear. In 1961, after visiting India, King praised that nation’s “preferential” policies that had been put in place to provide opportunity to those at the bottom of the caste system, and in a 1963 article in Newsweek, King actually suggested it might be necessary to have something akin to “discrimination in reverse” as a form of national “atonement” for the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

The most direct articulation of his views on the subject are found in his 1963 classic, Why We Can’t Wait. Therein, King discussed the subject of “compensatory” treatment for blacks and explained:

“Whenever this issue is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up”

In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King argued:

“A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”

Furthermore, King was clear as to what that “something special” might entail. In 1965, during an interview with Playboy, King stated his support for billions of dollars of direct aid to black America — and not only the poorest of the poor — even though some might consider it “preferential treatment.” As King explained:

“For two centuries the Negro was enslaved and robbed of any wages–potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation…”

Also at this time, King helped launch “Operation Breadbasket,” which threatened consumer boycotts against private employers who didn’t hire blacks in rough proportion to their numbers in the community population. Such an effort went even further than affirmative action, since such programs don’t require proportional representation in any workplace or school, but rather, only “good faith efforts,” aimed at meeting what are considered “reasonable” goals for improved representation. And yet folks like Horowitz blast these kinds of pressure tactics against corporations as “shakedowns” when employed by Jesse Jackson or the NAACP.

For some, no amount of evidence will suffice. My detractor from the Dakota State Math Department, for example, found my use of quotes from King irrelevant, and suggested that quotes from someone don’t actually indicate what they think: an interesting and counterintuitive kind of thing for a logician such as teaches math to say.

Of course, one can choose to disagree with King, and current supporters of affirmative action and reparations. Many do, and those debates can and should be joined openly and honestly. Certainly it is not automatically the case that simply because Dr. King supported such efforts, that such programs are ipso facto desirable. But regardless of one’s conclusion about the legitimacy of affirmative action, or reparations, it seems only fair to insist that one present King’s views honestly and not attempt to use his words for purposes he would have found unacceptable.

If David Horowitz and his ilk wish to oppose affirmative action, so be it. But if they are desperate for a posthumous spokesperson, they will have to make do with the likes of George Wallace. Dr. King is already taken.

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