Through the twisted logic of Monday holidays, we celebrate Dr. King's birthday today, nearly a week after he would have turned 79. I have no idea how the Reverend might have felt about this, but I'd like to think he would have approved. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a great advocate of working class Americans; indeed, he was in Memphis on that terrible April day in 1968 to express his support for a strike by local sanitation workers. I suspect that the benefits of a three-day weekend for those who labor would appeal to him.
This morning's headline on CNN.com suggests that the "popular view of MLK [is] losing complexity". I haven't read the article, but the point is well taken. On the one hand, of course, this is to be expected. Transcendent historical figures are nearly always reduced, to some extent, to the sum of their most popular traits. Thus, Abraham Lincoln is the Great Emancipator, ignoring the man's clearly stated ambivalence about issues of race and slavery. Harry Truman arrives in the 21st Century as a paragon of straight-talking honesty; few remember that he owed his political career to a corrupt Kansas City political machine. We are aware, of course, of the fact that half of the men whose faces are carved into Mt. Rushmore once owned other human beings are property, but we minimize the offense with stories of kind treatment and eventual freedom.
And so it is with Dr. King. To many Americans, his life can be reduced to three historical events: the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington in 1963, and his martyrdom five years later. Young people may be forgiven if they believe that Dr. King was controversial during his lifetime only among the vilest and most ignorant (and usually southern) racists. The Dr. King who annually appears on our television screens in January is a benign and unchallenging figure, a man who seemingly rose above the politics of his day.
In reality, MLK was, for most of his life, a very unpopular figure among white Americans from California to Maine. It may be hard for anyone born after 1960 to believe, but civil rights laws were fought by dozens of mainstream politicians outside of the Deep South. Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for president in 1964, opposed federal interference in "state's rights" and voted against most major civil rights legislation. He was joined by a young Congressman from Texas named George Herbert Walker Bush. The idea that the national government could impose its will on Alabama and Mississippi, even in the cause of basic human dignity, was sharply debated among people who were otherwise considered unprejudiced, at least by the standards of the 1960s.
Further, there was never a moment in Dr. King's life in which he desired to be above the politics of his time. His life was spent in the political arena and his struggle did not end with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His thirst for social justice extended to broader social, economic, and even foreign policies. Eventually, Dr. King became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, viewing it as another violation of poor and working class people, the draftees who made up such a disproportionate share of the soldiers fighting and dying unnecessarily.
His stand on Vietnam earned him mostly contempt from white America and its leading news organizations. Dr. King, they said, without precisely using the words, had overstepped his bounds. He no longer knew his place. Read the patronizing thoughts of the "liberal" Washington Post in 1967:
"Dr. Martin Luther King's Vietnam speech was not a sober and responsible comment on the war but a reflection of his disappointment at the slow progress of civil rights and the war on poverty. It was filled with bitter and damaging allegations and inferences that he did not and could not document."
Or this guest editorial from the Chicago Tribune that same year:
"The unctuous Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has been something of a hindrance to the civil rights movement since he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Since the award, he has specialized in speaking in Olympian tones, rather than addressing himself to the practicalities of the civil rights movement."
By the time of his death, Dr. King was very clearly associated with the political left in America, though it is unclear that he ever thought of himself in that way. The fight for African American equality was not simply an ideological fight; some conservatives of the day, notably Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, laudably supported the end of apartheid in the United States. But in his support for workers' rights, economic justice, and peace in Southeast Asia, Dr. King's worldview increasingly came to overlap with that of such celebrated liberals as Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy.
It is difficult to say whether the current embrace of Dr. King's words by some American conservatives is disingenuous or simply ignorant. Perhaps the most offensive abuse of MLK's memory is the pulling of one of his most famous quotes entirely out of context. In his speech on the Capital Mall, Dr. King spoke of a dream in which "my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Almost forty-five years later, this ringing eloquence has taken on a sadder second life as a right-wing justification for ending most programs designed to redress the racial imbalances that still exist in educational and employment opportunities. Affirmative action, conservatives howl, judges people by the color of their skin rather than their character. So does institutionalized racism, of course, but that fact is conveniently elided by those conservatives who fancy MLK as their ally.
But Dr. King was the sworn enemy of inequality, and it borders on ridiculous to assume that he would view the situation today as the final culmination of his dream. He may or may not have supported specific plans or policies, but it strains credulity to suggest that he would advocate legal colorblindness in a society in which color still has so many ramifications for life chances, life goals, and even life expectancy. One day, he said, he hoped his children would live in a nation in which they would be judged solely on their character. Though we have made enormous progress since 1963, that glorious day remains in our future.
How will we know we have reached that day? Certainly, we will find evidence in the statistical record, with income and educational gaps disappearing and infant mortality finally uncorrelated with skin color. We will know when white Americans stop referring to calls for social justice as "playing the race card". We will know when African Americans no longer tense up at the sight of a police cruiser in their rear view mirror.
Perhaps as much as anything else, we will know when all Americans embrace Martin Luther King's birthday as their holiday, and regard Dr. King as the full peer of those men whose faces look down from that granite mountain in South Dakota.