”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 89 today. He has been dead for 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 as we live in the era of an openly racist president and his proudly racist supporters, much of what he fought against is resurfacing or still with us today.
As we lose, each year, more of the people who personally witnessed King’s career, his impact is also being steadily minimalized – not just by a president who, today, became 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 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, 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 its 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 in renting their New York City apartments.
Another 13 years later, in 1986, an Alabama attorney named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions became only the second nominee since World War Two to have his nomination for the federal judiciary rejected – explicitly because of Sessions’ overt racism.
Now, an unrepentant Sessions, as head of the Department of Justice, has along with his Congressional allies taken sweeping measures to try to undo much of the legal framework of non-discrimination that was the signal accomplishment of the Civil Rights era. Sessions oversees, among other things, housing discrimination complaints, suppression of black voting (now done with computer-aided precision unthinkable when King fought Jim Crow), and investigations of local police brutality against non-whites in cities across the US.
Sessions was 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.
Just how long does that arc need to be before justice takes hold?
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 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 the history of his spectacular, all-too-brief career offers as we confront Trump’s America.
The Forgotten History
King, the man, is internationally revered on the level of Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela as last century’s most 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, citing a higher moral authority, and 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 had a chance to be widely believed a relic or buffoon.
Most importantly, King was a brilliant political tactician. He never held public office, but as a private citizen 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. 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 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 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 Dr. King 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. We forget that he 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 a difference, too.
We Could Each Be Dr. King
Sixty-three years after the Montgomery bus boycott catapulted a 26-year-old King into prominence, blacks 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. A conservative US Supreme Court has helped usher in a new era where possible redress for discrimination has been steadily whittled away.
Gifted African-Americans like Barack Obama can achieve at a level unthinkable in 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 like George W. Bush could still never, ever become President of the United States. A wealthy black con artist like Donald Trump would be doing hard time.
Resisting Trump requires that we acknowledge that the overt racism of Montgomery in 1955 is still a central feature of America in 2018. It shows up 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 a new, far more cynical century. We don’t go much for moral outrage any longer. It’d take a whole lot more than Bull Connor’s police dogs to make the news today. And social media has transformed activism – elevating the voices that are the most eloquent and incendiary, often at the expense of organizing that can change public policies (or prevent past public policy victories from being gutted).
But in 2018, we also have strengths not available to Dr. King. The forces of racism and hate notwithstanding, ours is now a far more multi-cultural society. Far 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 s 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. Last January, after the newly installed president enacted a Muslim travel ban, a similar number swarmed airports across America in hours. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin never dreamed of such possibilities.
But the saddest loss in the modern narrative of Dr. King’s career – and the aspect with the most transformative power – is the story of who he was: a man without wealth, without elected office, who managed as a single individual to change the world simply through 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. 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 become a schlocky greeting card, a warm, fuzzy, feel-good invocation of neighborliness, a literally whitewashed file photo for sneakers 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, and determination of both King and millions of other less well-known people.
How they demanded change, and won it though the exercise of power nobody thought they had, should inspire all of us. Now more than ever, their story needs to be told. As it inspires us to action, that arc might just start bending back toward justice again.