OPINION: Both sides of the political aisle love to claim the civil rights icon while failing to live up to his ideals and conveniently sidestepping his more radical politics.
“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. in a speech to the Negro American Labor Council, 1961.
Against the odds, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has become one of the few figures in American culture that people on both sides of the political aisle love to claim.
Although he never confirmed an affiliation with either major political party, both Democrats and Republicans inevitably flood their social media channels with quotes and solemn tributes to the slain civil rights icon on MLK Day today, and on the ones that follow, while conveniently sidestepping the radical politics that came to define the final years of his life.
In recent years, the right has used King and the broader civil rights movement of the 1960s as a cudgel with which to chastise modern-day activists of color. They have made a respectability politics-infused argument that Black Lives Matter activists, for example, should not be taken seriously since they are not as “polite” and “poised” as what they now perceive as the non-threatening protesters of the 1960s.
This, of course, ignores the fact that not all civil rights protesters back then were committed to nonviolence, or that activists like King and his followers were anything but passive.
The left is also guilty of tapping King as a resource when convenient. At the time of this writing, Senate Democrats were planning to take a stab at passing voting rights legislation on MLK’s birthday.
However, two nominally Democratic senators with crucial make-or-break votes—West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema— decided to stubbornly resist substantive reforms to the filibuster procedural rule that has thus far prevented any action on ongoing threats to our democracy. Instead, the Senate will take up the voting rights legislation on Tuesday.
Apparently, the irony is lost on the two senators that the 60-vote threshold to pass most legislation has historically been used to curb civil rights legislation, including the historic Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts championed by Dr. King in his lifetime.
Or perhaps they just don’t care. They must know that since the 2020 election, multiple states have passed extreme measures that will only serve to disenfranchise voters of color. Dr. King would not have stood idly by and let that happen, but apparently, these two senators are content to do so.
The towering ignorance of Sinema, in particular, is disheartening. This first-term senator—who hails from a state that dragged its heels to adopt the King holiday and who owes her seat to voters of color who turned out for her in 2018—has decided that she knows better than former President Barack Obama, our current president Joe Biden and countless activists—including the surviving children of the King family—about what the best route is to preserving and protecting the right of people of color not just to vote, but have their vote counted.
She has argued we must seek the approval of Republicans to accomplish anything—that’s like arguing that segregationists should have been brought in to help determine how to integrate the schools back in the ’60s.
The 60s was when Dr. King did his most celebrated work and he would not have become the icon he is today without showing a considerable degree of courage and a willingness to not always do and say what he thought was popular, while still not actively hurting the lives of others.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
Single-handedly torpedoing any chance of reforming our democratic process, which may be the most urgent crisis facing this country, is not the bold act of a maverick; it’s the cowardly act of someone who’s willing to throw in the towel rather than lead. And yet, Sinema will almost certainly wrap herself in the mantle of King when the time is right.
In the past decade or so, there has been an attempt to reckon with some of the more complicated aspects of MLK’s legacy, like his flawed personal life, for instance. But there hasn’t been the same emphasis on the social revolution he was advocating for in the final years of his life.
King was a man who called for the redistribution of wealth, in part through a federal initiative to eradicate poverty. He was increasingly critical of capitalism and called his movement a “class struggle,” once saying, “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.” He called out white Americans for “not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance.”
That legacy is not as warm and cuddly as wanting little Black children and white children to play together in school. Although, make no mistake about it, that was a terrifying thought to many Americans at the time, and even learning about it still is in many white communities.
The sad reality is that, for years, large swaths of the American public, both liberal and conservative, saw MLK as a polarizing and dangerous figure. He was ostensibly murdered because of what he believed and would be tarred broadly with a socialist brush for his entire life on the public stage, and as recently as the 80s, on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
So this cultural rebranding has been a relatively recent affair. Something is amiss when both Vice President Kamala Harris and Sen. Ted Cruz both claim to have an affinity for King and his legacy. Both of those things simply can’t be true from their perspective of the gulf between their requisite political ideology and deeds.
Politicians will reduce King’s agenda to seeking “equality” and “dignity,” which, of course, is part of it, but they neglect en masse to point out that the 1963 March on Washington where he gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, was a march for jobs as well as a march for freedom. Or how, in that very speech, King spoke of coming to our nation’s capital “to cash a check” for a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”
They certainly don’t want us to pay as much attention to the superior and stirring “Mountaintop” speech delivered on the eve of his death, where he advocated for the more modest, but pragmatic, needs of Memphis sanitation workers.
“Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal,” he told the audience. “Now, we are poor people, individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively, that means all of us together, collectively, we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine.”
He went on to say that together, Black Americans had more money than the rest of the world and that money should and could translate into power “if we know how to pool it.”
Of course, besides our economic production and purchasing power, Black Americans also still have the right to vote, despite myriad extreme measures being put in place to do everything legally (and extra-legally) to prevent it.
And with that vote we have an opportunity to hold any politician who uses King’s name in vain accountable, whether it be because of unfulfilled promises or rank hypocrisy.
Dr. King, of course, fought tirelessly to win the right to vote for citizens of color all around this country, but he wanted them to use it, too. I can’t think of a better way to honor what he stood for and believed in than supporting candidates who genuinely share his vision of the mountaintop, not just pretenders to the throne.
Adam Howard is a senior associate producer for “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” and a producer on the “Full Release with Samantha Bee” podcast. He has written about pop culture, sports and politics for The Daily Beast, Playboy, and NBC News and has recently curated an exhibition of the history of blaxploitation for the Poster House museum in New York City.
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