In retrospect, inducting Martin Luther King Jr. into the Pantheon of American Heroes may have been a mistake and a disservice to what he fought for.
Back during the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the big arguments here in Arizona was about the Martin Luther King Holiday. It was debated on the floor of the legislature, was an issue in political campaigns, and prompted marches and public demonstrations across the state. Everybody in public life, even Alice Cooper, was asked their opinion about the issue.
Opposition to the holiday was an article of faith on the right. Their argument was that King was a radical left winger, perhaps even a socialist, and a figure this controversial was not the sort of person who should be honored with a holiday.
The response of holiday supporters was to say that this was laughable bunk. King was no radical, they said, just a very nice man who wanted everyone to hold hands and sing, or something like that.
The trouble is that this was a lie. King was a radical, and much of what he stood for is still controversial decades after his death. He was defanged to make him acceptable to frightened suburbanites. This process of canonization reduced him to one pretty line from a much longer speech, and this has not only cheapened his cause, but has enabled conservatives to dishonestly embrace his legacy.
Anniversaries like today and the Martin Luther King holiday are occasions for conservatives to demonstrate their aggressively willful cluelessness in this regard. Years ago, then-Senate President Ken Bennett commemorated MLK Day by making a speech during a joint session of the Arizona Legislature in which he honored King and Ronald Reagan as great heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, an assessment that conveniently ignored the fact that Reagan actively opposed key civil rights legislation and even wrote an editorial which seemed an attempt to justify King’s assassination. A few days back, a FOX News commentator echoed the similarly predictable canard that King would be at home in today’s Republican Party and in the most tasteless way possible accused modern Democrats of “co-opting” King’s cause to promote their agenda.
Lets be serious, would a guy who laid down his life to intervene on behalf of striking union municipal workers be comfortable in today’s Republican party?
Nonetheless, conservative Republicans are constantly damning their opponents for invoking a memory of an historical MLK which is inconsistent with the coloring book version. They say that Democrats and progressives have “co-opted” King’s cause to support a left-of-center economic agenda, while ignoring that most of his speeches dealt with poverty and economic injustice. They have argued that Mexican-Americans have “co-opted” his movement even though King praised his contemporary Cesar Chavez for his “indefatigable work against poverty” and as “one of the outstanding men of America.” There are even those who have complained that liberals have been shamelessly exploiting this anniversary to promote a renewal of the Voting Rights Act, even though voting rights were specifically mentioned in Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, just not the part they remember.
Here in Arizona, disgraced Attorney General Tom Horne often cites the fact that he participated in civil rights marches in the 1960s when he is criticized for his blatant race-baiting, but he has built his career around legislation that effectively forbids schools from discussing why these marches were necessary. This might, more than anything, speak to the revisionism that is at work here. Conservatism is, at its heart, based on the idea that everything was hunky-dory until a bunch of liberals ruined everything. Remembering the real Martin Luther King Jr. and what he fought for means admitting that the America’s past was less than perfect, that there was always controversy and that there were always those who fought the conservative status quo, whether it was King or A. Philip Randolph or Francisco P. Ramirez or Lucretia Mott. This reality shatters the central narrative of their political philosophy.
Unfortunately, to make King an icon, we have had to make him non-controversial. We had to hollow him out, enabling anyone to fill that vessel with whatever supports their agenda. This is unfortunate, because his struggle continues.