In 2018, we have removed all the edginess of Martin Luther King Jr., all his radical qualities, all his unrelenting demands on the racism and classism that is so much a part of our American character.
Fifty years after his death, King has been as co-opted by the establishment as Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson. Like other sacred heroes of American democracy, King is no longer a real, complex and flawed human being but a pseudo-religious figure, robbed of the justifiable anger and discomfort with the world that moved him in his real life.
At every anniversary, our TVs and phones endlessly play the “I Have a Dream” speech to the exclusion of all other aspects of King’s life. The confrontational civil rights leader has become a safe icon calling from on high for equality, not at all the man who so directly and so relentlessly confronted this country’s establishment, bringing civil disobedience to a high art.
Gone in the body politic is King’s unpopular opposition to the Vietnam War, and sanitized his discomfiting pacifism. Gone is the Poor People’s Campaign, for which in the end, he gave his life, protesting on behalf of black garbage collectors’ low wages and discriminatory working conditions.
Contemporary politicians who would have opposed everything King stood for in 1963, in 2018 dutifully march up the aisle at the annual Martin Luther King Day celebrations. Men and women who have never had to overcome anything of substance lock arms with those who have actually lived American apartheid and join in singing the old spirituals. Even as many of the same men and women in power continue to promote an unrestrained militarism and ungoverned capitalism as a way of life. The antithesis of everything King stood for.
Some have tried to argue that the Black Lives Matter movement is somehow existentially different than the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the Birmingham Campaign. It is not. There is absolutely no doubt that King would have supported Black Lives. He would have been there with the young protesters at Ferguson.
Martin Luther King Jr. staged marches in defiance of legal orders not to do so, he criticized the treatment of police and he publicly rebuked the actions of both presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. And although he took a nonviolent approach to protest he understood self-defense and those at his marches were not always completely non-violent.
King described himself as a democratic socialist and those in power saw his leadership on that kind of an idea as an imminent threat to the country. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover hounded King relentlessly, branding him a communist and threat to the country’s order. Hoover tried to blackmail King over his personal life and the NSA monitored his communications.
In the years after King died, many fought bitterly against celebrating a holiday in his name, including initially Ronald Reagan. The state of New Hampshire, just up the road, resisted enacting the holiday until 1999. King, after he took up residence in a black Chicago neighborhood to advocate for equal access to housing, once described the resistance he encountered in the North as worse than anything he saw in the South.
Fifty years on, we have made progress in Martin Luther King Jr.’s name and we have resisted progress. But the country may be even more divided than it was in 1968 and racism and classism are both well and alive.
Fifty years on, Martin Luther King Jr. has become a mythical figure and we dutifully celebrate his name and his legacy. But they are celebrations that have not reached the hearts of all, not changed the country anywhere near as much as the real civil rights leader desired.
Jack Spillane is the Sunday and editorial page editor of The Standard-Times.