In the wake of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations, I watched another African-American leader, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), announce the formation of his presidential campaign exploratory committee.
The press coverage for the senator has ranged from outright fawning to a return of the visceral racism that characterized Dr. King’s time in the national media spotlight.
Over the last month, Sen. Obama and other politicians attempted to claim the mantle of Dr. King’s legacy, and I got to thinking about the peculiar American habit of adopting symbols to suit one’s own ends.
His iconic image is used by many to bolster opinions and to justify attitudes about current problems.
It’s easy to see how this happened. Americans are largely ignorant of their history and Dr. King’s essential messages adapt easily to the current variety of media formats.
I wonder why it is exactly that MLK Jr. is used to justify the opinions of conservatives, Christians, African-Americans, the gay community, and both Republicans and Democrats, especially when his message elicits such passionate responses when these groups are in opposition to each other.
I suspect it’s because they can’t justify their own opinions and must instead rely on image manipulation in order to garner the most attention.
This itself goes to a larger question: Does Dr. King’s legacy belong to everyone or not?
Recent history demonstrates that those people who attempt to affix King and his message to individual causes are only distorting that message.
His daughter Bernice, an outspoken evangelical Christian, and her pastor, Rev. Eddie Long, stood at her father’s grave in December 2004 with other black evangelicals in opposition to gay marriage.
This, in spite of her father’s dogged refusal to renounce his associate Bayard Rustin (the mind behind “The March On Washington”) who was homosexual, and her mother’s 1996 statement that her husband would have been a champion of gay rights were he still alive.
While I’ve always thought it’s a bad idea to put words in the mouths of the dead, I’m also inclined to believe that Coretta Scott King knew her husband’s civil rights sensibilities better than a daughter who was but a very small child when he died and a target for hangers-on seeking the endorsement of a long-gone hero.
We need reminding that following the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King shifted his focus to the American poor and their struggles to survive in a wealthy nation.
When he was assassinated in 1968, Dr. King was in Memphis to support the city’s sanitation workers’ demands for better wages. During his lifetime, Dr. King understood that the federal government has a huge role to play in the lives of ordinary Americans because the Negro had been exiled from the American experience.
He preached that if the spirit of God’s love was in opposition to one’s social activism, then that activism is necessarily against God’s essential message of inclusion and in opposition to the promise of the United States of America.
For that, he was killed.
It’s difficult to fathom that Dr. King would have endorsed any activism or political campaigns that promoted one demographic over another, as he saw early on in his work that racial and economic discrimination diminishes us all and serves only to erode the ideals of our republic.
So, while watching the ever-increasing roster of presidential hopefuls talk a big game about Dr. King’s influence on their respective candidacies, including Sen. Obama, I haven’t noticed any of them living The Dream.