Ignorance of History

By Tom Prezelski

Re-blogged from Rum, Romanism and Rebellion

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.

4 responses to “Ignorance of History

  1. “I’ll have those niggers voting Democratic for the next 200 years.” —Lyndon B. Johnson

    “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.”—LBJ

  2. Sorry, Tom. Still a great post.

  3. Brian Clymer

    Actually his name is Tom.