It’s mid-January, which means that we’re in the midst of America’s newest annual tradition: everyone in public life distributes one of three MLK quotes, and then we all reaffirm our collective national commitment to ensuring that race relations don’t regress any further than 1965, or 1954 at the absolute earliest. It’s like a Thanksgiving where everyone sits around and quotes from Dances with Wolves and then asks what the deal with Native Americans is.
Martin Luther King Day is problematic. It’s problematic because it’s the leading edge of a bifurcation of King’s legacy into what can charitably be called the Disney King and the Real King. The Disney King is the one whose predominant message was a race-ignorant society where recognizing “the content of one’s character” was a command to ignore the entirety of America’s history with race. That King’s message was that a class of people, discriminated against on the basis of race, simply wanted the country to stop thinking about their race. Once that happened, discrimination would end, and the vicious psychological scars of slavery and Jim Crow and racial inequality would be healed. …And scene.
The Real King was a tremendously complex political figure despised by many, who fought for racial justice, and against Vietnam, and who accepted the Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood. He wasn’t a moderate pragmatist who just really wanted to be able to sit in the front of the bus – the man was, both by the standards of his day and of the present day, a leftist.
America has coalesced around celebrating the works and legacy of a leftist. And it’s a good thing.
At this point, it’s nearly cliche to point out that Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t die to help white people feel less guilty about America’s history, and didn’t wear a suit to shame young black men in jeans. I no longer have patience with today as a shared reiteration that Civil Rights Act was a good thing, or that racism consists of solely of whatever was in Eyes on the Prize.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was, in fact, a radical. He was a radical about war, about race, about class, about a whole host of issues. That part of his radicalism is now enshrined as unassailable convention doesn’t reduce it – it simply provides a much-needed reminder that radicals are sometimes wiser than they ever get credit for.