My title may seem like an oddly partisan blessing, but it’s more of a definitely partisan curse. It’s not the worst form of damnation you could wish upon a person, but for some folks it oughtta be bad enough. The curse is real thou. It happens.
Civil Rights activists must have felt the sting of this curse this last weekend as right wing America did its best to distinguish Colin Kaepernick from Martin Luther King, Jr. It seems, their efforts had been necessitated by publican of an image linking Kaepernick, Michael Bennett and Martin Luther King, all kneeling together. Outraged to see Kaepernick and MLK connected, plenty of folks took to the net to tell us Bennet and Kaepernick shouldn’t be put on the same level as MLK. Beyond that, cultural conservatives assured us that MLK was selfless and that Kaepernick is simply out for himself, that King was a patriot whereas Kaepernick hates America, and that MLK preached unity whereas Kaepernick is being deliberately divisive.
Heard that last one a lot this weekend.
I’m not old enough to remember MLK’s activism in its day, but I am old enough to remember cultural conservatives attitudes towards him before he became a national holiday, before you could find roads named after him all over America, before admiration or MLK became a forgone conclusion. And of course before conservatives began to claim him as one of their own. We heard many of the same things about Martin Luther King back then that are said of Colin Kaepernick today. Lots of folks were not so impressed with his patriotism. As to divisiveness? Hell, he could be so lucky as to be described as merely divisive! I grew up hearing stories about how MLK and other civil rights leaders were just trying to cause trouble, simply drawing attention to themselves. Things were getting better, plenty of people assured me. Those activists were simply making things so much worse. Divisive? Hell, MLK that would have been an improvement over the things said of him at some of the dinner tables I’ve attended.
It’s a poetic injustice, really, seeing Martin Luther King transformed into a means of silencing black activists. He’s been held over the heads of the Black Lives Matter movement for some time now, and thrown in the face of just about any African-American deemed a little too disruptive by conservatives, especially by those conservatives moderate enough to think of they’ve learned the lessons of the civil rights movement. Gone are the days when cultural conservatives would spit ‘commie’ after hearing the name of Martin Luther King. Now, being more comfortable with his legacy, they spit his name at any black activists they find more threatening today.
That’s gotta be a special kind of Hell, to be used against those who carry on your legacy? If so, it’s a special Hell reserved for people who’ve earned a lot better.
What I think a lot of moderate conservatives and a good deal of middle-of-the-road America likes about MLK is the notion that we should be color blind. Some folks may even mean it. Others just like the prospects of using this principle against social justice warriors, affirmative action programs, and any number of left wing causes that ask us to take difference into account. Yet, the message of equality changes a great deal when it’s employed in this manner. When King delivered his “I have a dream” message, equality was message flying in the face of white privilege. If you’ll pardon the cliche, it really was a way of speaking truth to power. Today that message is used to speak power to truth. It is a call to ignore real differences in opportunity, to silence those in need of help, and to preemptively dismiss any political agenda aimed at helping the underprivileged. There is something genuinely vicious about the way cultural conservatives have turned King’s message on its head and turned him into a weapon well-suited to re-enforcing comfort and privilege.
It’s enough to make you lose your lunch.
Sadly, this isn’t an uncommon thing. It seems that those leaning to the right have a general tendency to remember some lefty figures fondly, but only after forgetting the lefty part. How many people have complained about the politics in Roger Waters concerts over the years? Some folks may have specific complaints about aspects of Waters’ politics, but a fair number seem genuinely shocked to find political content in Animals or The Wall.
Maybe they were just too stoned to listen the first time.
I know. Pink Floyd lyrics may not warrant the same admiration as the life of Martin Luther King, but in a sense that impression too illustrates the point. Just as with Kaepernick and questions about whether he should be on the same par as MLK, the veneration of MLK here misses the mark. When someone advocates on behalf of those in need, or confronts those who abuse power, should we really be all that concerned about how they compare to other heroes? Or should we be more concerned about how their politics contributes to something of value?
Yes, that was a rhetorical question.
And then of course, there were those people shocked and outraged to find Coretta Scott King. As George W. Bush attended her funeral, some thought it inappropriate for those honoring her legacy to speak out against the Iraq. And thus his decision to honor her, became her limitation, or rather the limitation on what could be said in her honor while he was present. I get it. It’s a little rude to criticize the President when he’s sitting right there, especially knowing that he doesn’t have to be. But you know what’s more rude? Expecting the funeral of an activist with a life-long commitment to non-violence to pass by without any comments on the greatest war of the day.
In America, even our conservatives are happy to celebrate liberal activists.
Once they and their own learn to be quiet about it.
“We love you, shhhhhhh…”