”The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have turned 91 this year. He has been dead for over a half century, far longer than he was alive. As his living memory fades, replaced by a feel-good “I have a dream” whitewash that ignores much of what he stood for and fought against, it’s more important than ever to recapture the true history of Dr. King – because in the era of an openly racist president and his proudly racist supporters, much of what he fought against is becoming normalized once again.
As we lose, each year, more of the people who personally worked with Dr. King and witnessed his career, his impact is also being steadily minimalized – not just by a president who was the first president since the King holiday was established to pointedly ignore it (Trump went golfing instead), but also by a White America that has little beyond the most basic notion of what King did and why, and as well by a new generation of black activism that draws more from the legacy of Malcolm X and especially the Black Panthers than it does from Dr. King. At this point, the King history is in danger of being reduced to a context-free ritual, an excuse for another post-Christmas holiday, its invocations of a post-racial society sounding less like a lofty vision and more like a cruel joke.
Even before Dr. King’s assassination, in the mid-’60s virtually every major city in the US saw riots. Those riots were centered in its black ghettos and frequently fueled by systemic police violence against their residents.
In 1973, only five years after King’s death, a young Donald Trump represented his father’s real estate company, Trump Management, against a sweeping Department of Justice lawsuit alleging that the Trumps systematically discriminated against blacks trying to rent their New York City apartments.
Another 13 years later, in 1986, an Alabama attorney named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III became only the second nominee since World War Two to have his nomination for the federal judiciary rejected a the Senate – explicitly because of Sessions’ overt racism.
Now, the Department of Justice, with the enthusiastic backing of Congressional and local Republicans, has taken sweeping measures to try to undo much of the legal framework of non-discrimination that was a preeminent accomplishment of the Civil Rights era. The Attorney General who replaced Sessions, William Barr, praised Sessions’ approach to voter suppression and the dismantling of anti-discrimination enforcement during his Senate confirmation hearing. Barr’s Department of Justice, among many other things, is now actively ignoring housing discrimination complaints, suppression of black voting (now done with computer-aided precision unimaginable when King fought Jim Crow), and investigations of local police abuses against non-whites in cities across the US.
Sessions and Barr were picked for that job by the same Donald Trump who inherited a local real estate empire built on discrimination, and who won the presidency in large part with explicit appeals to racism (and the assistance of Vladimir Putin).
Just how long do we need to travel that arc before justice prevails?
Dr. King’s faith-based optimism in the moral goodness of humanity may, after a half-century that has seen tremendous progress as well as widespread regression, seem to some quaint and naive at best, irrelevant at worst. But his moral vision is not the only reason he is remembered today, and it’s not the only lesson offered by his spectacular, all-too-brief career as we confront Trump’s America.
The Forgotten History
King, the man, is globally revered on the level of Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, as one of last century’s moral champions of nonviolence and human dignity – even though, unlike Gandhi and Mandela, he spent relatively few years in the public eye. Dr. King spent his life defying authority and convention. He never held public office, citing a higher moral authority, but still gave hope and inspiration for the liberation of people of color on six continents. King is not a legend because he believed in diversity trainings and civic ceremonies, or because he had a nice dream. He is remembered because he took serious risks to his own life (and eventually lost it) fighting for a higher cause.
King is also remembered because, among a number of brave and committed civil rights leaders and activists, he had a flair for self-promotion, a style that also appealed to white liberals, and the extraordinary social strength of the black Southern churches behind him. And because he died before he could be widely dismissed as a relic or buffoon by the more radical activists of his era.
Most importantly, King was a brilliant political tactician. As a private citizen, he became the leader of tens of millions of Americans widely thought to have no power, showing how they could, along with white allies, exercise power effectively enough to win big. He exploited divisions in his racist white opponents, pitting the die-hard segregationists against white-owned businesses crippled by economic boycotts. He gained allies in long-time segregationists like Lyndon Johnson, who, as the president that signed the Civil Rights Act, was responding to King’s power politics, not his moral appeals. That’s a part of King’s legacy that’s squarely relevant today for marginalized communities of all types.
What little history TV will give us around King’s holiday this year is at least as much about forgetting as about remembering; as much about self-congratulatory patriotism that King was American as self-examination that American racism made him necessary; that our government, at every level, sought to destroy him; and that the type of men who ran those governments have seized power again. We hear “I have a dream”; we don’t hear King’s powerful later indictments of poverty, the Vietnam War, and the military-industrial complex. We see Bull Connor in Birmingham; we don’t see arrests for fighting segregated housing in Chicago, or the years of beatings and busts before he won the Nobel Peace Prize. We don’t hear about the mainstream American contempt at the time for King, even after that Peace Prize, nor the FBI harassment, or his reputation among conservatives as a Commie dupe.
Pop culture’s MLK has no politics, no history, and even no faith. We don’t see retrospectives on King’s linkage of civil rights with global liberation, in an era when most of sub-Saharan Africa won its post-colonial independence. We forget that Dr. King died in Memphis lending support for a union (the garbage workers’ strike), while organizing a multi-racial Poor Peoples’ Campaign that demanded affordable housing and decent-paying jobs as basic civil rights transcending skin color. We forget that many of King’s fellow leaders weren’t nearly so polite. Cities were burning. Selma got the movie, but Watts, Newark, and Detroit made an impact, too.
We Could Each Be Dr. King
Sixty-five years after the Montgomery bus boycott catapulted a 26-year-old King into prominence, blacks (and Latinos) are being newly systematically disenfranchised in our elections. Affirmative action and school desegregation are dead. Urban school districts across the country are as segregated and unequal as ever. Prisons and the “justice” system have ensnared millions. A conservative US Supreme Court has helped usher in a new era where possible redress in the courts for discrimination has been steadily whittled away.
Gifted African-Americans like Barack Obama can achieve at a level unthinkable in Dr. King’s day. But the better test of a society’s marginalization of discriminated-against groups is not how the most talented people of each group fares, but how the mediocre do. A black mediocrity equivalent of George W. Bush could still never, ever become President of the United States. A wealthy black con artist on par with Donald Trump would be doing hard time.
Resisting Trump requires us to acknowledge that the overt racism of Montgomery in 1955 is still a central feature of America in 2020. That legacy is blatant in our geography, in our prisons, in our schools, in our voting booths, in our shelters and food banks, in our economy, in our law enforcement, and in the very earnest and extremely white activist groups that often carry the banner on these issues.
King used the moral outrage of white Americans to force change; in our far more cynical century, white Americans aren’t as easily motivated by moral outrage. Hatred and shamelessness are what get you noticed in our new, social media universe. It’d take a whole lot more than Bull Connor’s police dogs to make the news today. And social media has also transformed activism – elevating the voices that are the most eloquent and incendiary, often at the expense of strategic organizing that can change public policies (or prevent past public policy victories from being gutted).
But we also now have tools unimaginable to Dr. King. The forces of racism and hate notwithstanding, ours is now a far more multi-cultural society. Many more people have personal relationships with people of other races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, or classes. Appeals to abstract moral principles mean something, but injuries to people we know personally mean more. And social media’s impacts are also positive – enabling a new generation to be not only interconnected in ways unthinkable in King’s time, but able to quickly organize and to resist injustice at a scale he could never have imagined. The 1963 March On Washington took months to organize, drawing between 200,000 and 300,000 people to witness King’s most famous speech. In 2017, after the newly inaugurated Donald Trump enacted a Muslim travel ban, a similar number swarmed airports across America in hours. Organizers like Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph and never dreamed of such possibilities.
But actions like that require large numbers of people willing, even on short notice, to act – and to believe that our actions make a difference. The saddest loss in the modern narrative of Dr. King’s career – and the one with the most transformative power – is the story of who he was: a man without wealth, without elected office, who managed as a single, imperfect individual to change the world simply through his eloquence and the strength of his moral convictions. His power came from his willingness to act at enormous personal risk to do what he knew to be right. That story could inspire many millions to similar action — if only it were told today. We could each be Dr. King.
MLK has become an icon, not a historical figure (distorted or otherwise). History requires context; icons don’t. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolent martyr to reconciliation and justice, has largely become a schlocky greeting card, a warm, fuzzy, feel-good invocation of neighborliness, a literally whitewashed file photo for sneaker or soda commercials, a reprieve for post-holiday shoppers, an excuse for a three-day weekend, a cardboard cutout used for photo ops by dissembling politicians of all colors.
His image is misused in these ways precisely because he was powerful. The movement he led and inspired gained power not just because its cause was just, but also because of the risk-taking, courage, strategic decisions, and the determination of both King and millions of other less well-known people.
How they demanded change, and won it, through the exercise of power nobody thought they had, should inspire all of us. As we face a 2020 presidential election that could either reverse recent trends in the federal government and our broader culture or cement them for generations, it’s more important to act and to represent not just for Dr.King’s moral vision, but also his policy priorities. Now more than ever, King’s story needs to be fully told. As it inspires us to action, that arc might just start bending back toward justice again.