Once again, MLK's legacy is invoked to support issues he wouldn't stand for

Year after year, notable figures and institutions attempt to recast Martin Luther King Jr. as champion of causes that don't align with his legacy.
Image: Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Eutaw, Alabama
Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Eutaw, Alabama, in June 1965.AP

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By Janell Ross

Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy is eroded every year by the way Americans celebrate the slain civil rights icon, experts on the nation’s civil rights history say.

Without fail, King, a minister and civil rights activist felled by an assassin's bullet at the age of 39, is recast each year as a national hero in his own lifetime and as a champion of causes that he would not have supported, in the view of King scholars and, when they can agree, his children. In the process, America is often affirmed as a nation perpetually interested in justice and equality, even as the validity of modern day civil rights struggles are often called into question.

Chief among this year’s offenders was Vice President Mike Pence, according to Ibram X. Kendi, a professor of history and director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center. One day before the 2019 MLK holiday, Pence told those watching the CBS Sunday morning politics show, “Face The Nation,” that Trump, in his battle over the border wall and the resulting partial government shutdown, is much like King.

“One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was, ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,'” Pence said Sunday. “You think of how he changed America. He inspired us to change through the legislative process, to become a more perfect union.’"

The comment prompted Kendi to tweet: “They “honor” MLK every year by assassinating who he was.”

“I think it is one thing to literally assassinate. To kill the body is a tragic thing,” Kendi said. “But to then double down and completely erase who that person was and what they truly stood for is just beyond cruel. It is extremely dangerous.”

To Kendi, Pence’s comments sounded like a willful effort to distort the truth, to transfer King’s status as one of the most admired Americans of all time, a man with an unwavering commitment to equality and justice, to Trump, a man who described white supremacists as “very fine people,” separated families at the border and referred to undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists." To do so, many of King’s latter-day public admirers, like Pence, must shift the very meaning of justice and equity which King expressed during his lifetime.

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Trump is a figure who can be more readily compared to Bull Connor, said Kendi, who wrote the 2016 National Book Award-winning “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” Connor, an Alabama politician and law enforcement official, ordered dogs and hoses turned on civil rights protesters. He was what Kendi called a racist “bully,” determined to maintain a world where equity and justice did not exist. He was willing to use state power and violence to do so, Kendi said.

In the distorted telling of King’s life, even his death is different. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted Monday: “Today we honor a great American who gave his life to right the wrong of racial inequality. Our country is better thanks to his inspiration and sacrifice #MLKDay." Twitter users quickly pointed out King was murdered by an assassin with a firearm, and lived with the threat of death for many years before it arrived; he was not gently delivered into a state of self-sacrifice which cleansed the nation of all its racial sins.

Also, this year, the National Rifle Association tried to recast King — an avowed practitioner of nonviolent social resistance who renounced his own impulse to obtain a gun after his home was bombed — as an ally of limitless gun rights.

In a picture caption on Twitter, the NRA said: “Today, the men and women of theNRA honor the profound life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King applied for a concealed carry permit in a 'may issue' state and was denied. We will never stop fighting for every law-abiding citizen's right to self-defense. #MLKDay.”

Jeanne Theoharis, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, said Pence’s remarks and other MLK Day remembrances are emblematic of a broader American phenomenon. There is a year-round American habit of stripping King of his radicalism, and altering him to fit or agree with a wide range of ideas in need of credibility or cover from allegations of bigotry.

Some attempt to co-opt and alter King to make their ideas seem courageous. And, there are constant efforts to evade just how many people, institutions and organizations actively and vociferously opposed his activism. A Harris poll conducted early in the final year of King’s life indicated 75 percent of the American public disapproved of King at that time.

“There is this national fable of the civil rights movement,” said Theoharis, who wrote the book, “A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.”

“Although it has been a struggle, a long and ongoing struggle, this idea that some things were wrong, King and Parks spoke up and we fixed it — that’s done," Theoharis said, referring to Rosa Parks.

That simple story, one of a job complete, has become what Theoharis described as “central to the ways that the United States talks about and thinks about itself."

“It is not an episodic thing and it crosses party lines,” she said.

The mythical version of King, and Parks with him, makes it possible to overlook the “messy” and “disruptive” nature of the civil rights movement, how essential past civil rights activists found it to challenge police, elected officials and other parts of the American establishment. It makes a few misinterpreted lines in the “I Have a Dream” speech well known and King’s positions on poverty, war, economic inequality and consumerism as well as his belief that white moderates represented a deeply disappointing force in American life, less known.

Belief in the mythical version of King makes it easy, even logical, to criticize contemporary activists for doing precisely what King did or perceiving those actions as deviations from King’s tactics. Once that happens, pointing out contemporary injustice can become the problem, not the laws or officials involved. And talk of bridge-building and “oneness” becomes the expectation, Theoharis said.

Pence’s comments and so many other misguided efforts to honor King by remaking him, sometimes in the political lane of someone else with whom few scholars believe King would have agreed, strip King of the rare moral courage he demonstrated.

“These watered-down and distorted versions of the truth, avoiding the real King, the real Parks,” Theoharis said, “serves as a way to protect us in the present from having to do and face hard things.”