“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made that statement at the National Conference on New Politics in 1967, he was acknowledging the deep roots of inequality in the United States and the revolutionary steps necessary to move forward. Today, on the federal holiday honoring what would have been his 88th birthday, the country seems to be engaged in a collective misremembering of what Dr. King lived through, believed in and advocated for.
King’s dream was one of a radical new America, in which structural power imbalances could be dismantled and replaced with a society centered around social, political and economic equality. In that same 1967 speech, King issued deep critiques of capitalism and materialism, placing them on par with militarism and racism in terms of their destructive impact on American society.
Contemporary reflections on King’s legacy often neglect to mention these critiques, crafting a sanitized version of his message that is easily embraced by political officials who embody so much of what he fought against.
Early this morning, soon-to-be President Donald Trump tweeted a call for all of us to “Celebrate Martin Luther King Day and all of the many wonderful things that he stood for.” Trump apparently saw no conflict between this declaration and his choice of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, a man who Coretta Scott King once rebuked for using his office to “chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.” It is not hard to imagine how King would have felt about a Trump presidency. His statement on the Republican nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 provides plenty of insights. There, he called Goldwater’s philosophy of nationalism and isolationism “morally indefensible,” and argued that, regardless of whether Goldwater himself was a racist, he was giving “aid and comfort to the racists.”
Still, countless players on the political right have followed Trump’s lead, lavishing praise on King while simultaneously working to dismantle the achievements of him and his contemporaries in the Civil Rights Movement. Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement this morning in which he commended King for his commitment to democracy. Ron Paul called King “one of my heroes” less than a year after telling MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that he would not have voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. New Gingrich has regularly tweeted about his admiration for King while also arguing that the government should reinstate poll tests.
Part of this dissonance is explained by the collective revision of civil rights history that Americans have undertaken in recent years. Gary Younge, who has written extensively on King’s legacy, reflected in the Nation four years ago that the March on Washington, despite its unpopularity at the time, “is hailed not as a dramatic moment of mass, multiracial dissidence, but as a jamboree in Benetton Technicolor, exemplifying the nation’s unrelenting progress toward its founding ideals.”
But something is lost by sanitizing King’s legacy in this way. As described by Dr. Wilmer Leon for The Root, we lose an “understanding and appreciation of the horrific social, legal and cultural nightmare that African Americans were living through in 1963 when he delivered the famous address.” Possibly more destructive, we also lose an understanding of how the forces of racism and inequality have endured and changed in the years since King’s assassination.
A sanitized version of history sometimes implies that racial injustice and civil rights abuses are things of the past. In the wake of the election, some have questioned what caused racial animosity to “resurface.” But racism, segregation, and economic inequality have persisted throughout the past century, in both subtle and overt forms. King’s birthday was not recognized as a federal holiday until 1983, and six of those who voted against the measure are still in Congress, including Arizona Senator John McCain. In Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, people are still observing King and Robert E. Lee’s birthdays on the same day. As the Movement for Black Lives and others have made abundantly clear, racism persists for black Americans on a daily basis: through schools that are de facto segregated by race, through mass incarceration and violent encounters with the police, and through countless other structural and cultural barriers.
Honoring Dr. King requires more than a symbolic acknowledgment of “the many wonderful things that he stood for.” It requires a deeper reflection on the ways in which oppression and inequality exist now, and a recognition of how much more needs to be done in order to fulfill his revolutionary vision of American society.