Martin Luther King Day is too cuddly, apolitical

In the 35 years since his assassination, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has become untouchable. King’s saintly legacy is now above reproach, and it is nothing short of heresy to say anything remotely disagreeable about the great civil rights leader. The King mystique is so strong that it is occasionally necessary to remind ourselves that he was an actual flesh-and-blood man and thus – by definition – flawed.

King obviously is a hero. He was a courageous civil rights fighter and – toward the end of his life – a labor activist and staunch opponent of the genocidal war in Vietnam. So were other civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X, but they are routinely marginalized, in part because of their personal and political defects.

King was not perfect either. Despite his tremendous accomplishments, it is impolite to mention that King plagiarized his doctoral thesis and, as the journalist Christopher Hitchens put it, “spent his last night on earth in some pretty rough fornication.” Why is there this pervasive insistence on making King – who was once such a dangerous and polarizing figure – so safe, inclusive and downright cuddly?

It is politically useful. King’s actual political views (especially his later ones) have been sanitized and abstracted to such an extent that his name is regularly invoked in support of the most regressive policies. University of California Board of Regents member Ward Connerly, for example, often

mentions King in his diatribes against affirmative action. And when he was asked about the controversy surrounding President George W. Bush’s visit to King’s gravesite in Atlanta last Thursday, White House spokesman Taylor Gross said Bush “has a commitment to building on Dr. King’s legacy of equal justice for all.” The next day Bush appointed Charles Pickering, whose nomination was blocked twice by the Senate because of his abysmal civil rights record, to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In light of this kind of cynical appropriation of King’s name, the temptation is to observe Martin Luther King Day “authentically.” The problem is, in the absence of other holidays honoring other civil rights leaders or the civil rights movement generally, Martin Luther King Day is not just about honoring King – it is about honoring the entire civil rights movement through the lens of King’s philosophy and tactics.

But the civil rights movement was far bigger and more complex than any particular individual. Despite his flaws, King was unquestionably a great civil rights leader, but so were Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party and Angela Davis (none of whom were perfect themselves). Why should we privilege King over other important civil rights activists?

We have “Martin Luther King Day” and not “Black Panther Day” for a reason: King’s philosophy, as it is popularly comprehended, and those aspects of the civil rights movement he

is associated with, do not constitute broad indictments of the most fundamental U.S. institutions. People in Edina will not object when their kids learn about Rosa Parks’ brave symbolic act of defiance, but what about the Panthers’ Ten Point Plan? (Point Seven states that “all Black and oppressed people should be armed for self defense of our homes and communities against Ö fascist police forces.”)

Unfortunately the prevailing image of King is that of the inclusive reformer who participated in token acts of civil disobedience and did not ask white people to give all that much up – and that is just not good enough. The civil rights movement should be honored, but not in a way that silences or marginalizes its other voices – many of which continue to frighten the white establishment because they call for radical changes to our sacred institutions, government, economy and social structures.

A proper celebration of the civil rights movement should not be the “I’m OK, you’re OK” love-in we’re usually forced to piously endure on Martin Luther King Day.

Instead of canonizing King, let’s remember that making progress requires stepping on a few toes; that it comes out of strife, confrontation and transgression; and that justice for all

often means taking from a few.

Nick Woomer is a second-year law student. He welcomes comments at [email protected][email protected]