Goldstein: The Erasure of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Most of us misremember King’s principles. That’s by design.

by Matthew Goldstein | 1/16/18 12:30am

What, in your estimation, is the most widely-shared quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. on the third Monday each January? Is it “I have a dream”? “Hate cannot drive out hate”? An excerpt about content of character, perhaps? It is certainly not what King wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: That “it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts ... because the quest may precipitate violence.” Your most conservative friend on Facebook will never post that freedom “must be demanded by the oppressed.” King’s declaration that America is the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” will not appear on any banners.

Why, further, do we celebrate King? Why does his name, and not that of, say, Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael, grace a federal holiday? Yes, King was killed, and as ever, a murder makes a martyr. But X, too, was killed. I submit that there is a more nefarious reason at play. White America, in anointing King the paragon of activism, has hit upon a way to subdue further disturbances to white supremacy while appearing as if it is doing just the opposite.

I do not suggest that the government, in enacting the holiday, had this particular intention. This support of the institution of white supremacy takes the form that is hardest to pin down and perhaps hardest to rectify: the tacit racism in the unwillingness to be uncomfortable. King — the watered-down, philosophically anemic King we have chosen to remember — doesn’t offend the sensibilities of white America. The version of King put forth is more a message than a man. Fight, but not too hard. Disobey — but do it civilly. And in that message, a reminder: Play dress-up all you want, but do not upset the status quo. We like it the way it is.

Support of King — the civil disobedient, the man of god, but not the enemy of the white moderate — allows white, moderate America to absolve itself of the sin of racism. But that support does nothing to alleviate the scars of racism past and the grievous wounds of racism present. The tacit renegotiation of King’s legacy that has left at the sidelines his more radical thought allows the very people implicated in his exhortations against inaction to pat themselves on the back for quoting a Black man at all. We share the guiltless conscience of the hypocrite who will lie and cheat all week long but never miss church on Sunday.

The elevation of King to the fore of our national mythology around civil rights is nothing more than a manifestation of a peculiar type of propaganda. “No doubt a propaganda system is more effective,” asserted Noam Chomsky in 1976, “when its doctrines are insinuated rather than asserted, when it sets the bounds for possible thought.” King’s placement by the white establishment as the face of civil rights sets up a dichotomy: Either you are with King, or you are against him. And who, after all, could oppose the version of King we have constructed? The quotations of his we have chosen to propagate — about love, equality, respect — are utterly unassailable. The fact that ideologues from Fox News hosts to progressive activists quote him testifies to this. The King we have constructed is a caricature with which one cannot disagree.

In that inability to disagree is the inability to call forth a vision of anti-racist activism that does anything but the totally unobjectionable. This is the propaganda we face. It allows Mike Huckabee to invoke King in order to delegitimize the tactics and purpose of Black Lives Matter. It has framed the debate — you are King, and your sole tactic is love, or you impugn the sacred figure with whom disagreement is unthinkable. It has given marginalized communities working for the abolition of injustice an impossible choice: Remain passive or render the purpose of your activism illegitimate and your tactics reprehensible.

Nobody who wanted to win a war ever advocated forgoing weapons for words. There is no great verbal understanding to be reached in the fog of battle. She who lays down arms first loses the battle. We need not ask, then, why the white institution elevates King and not X or Carmichael and remembers King’s clerical amiability but not the fire in his fight. There are no plowshares anywhere near the swords of the white state. We see the repurposed guns of the militarized police; we read the extreme sentences remanding Black men to servile lives for petty offenses; we understand those connections between conquests abroad and the implicit otherness of minorities at home. The radical tactics of racism are exactly those deemed unacceptable for use by anti-racists. And the tactics deemed acceptable are precisely those that will not harm the status quo.

We ought not, therefore, accept the frame placed upon the debate. We ought to follow the Black community in embracing a range of tactics and activists, rounding out our picture of the historical quest for justice and all that is left to be done therein. This is more relevant to the American liberal than the American right-winger, just as King’s concern lay more with the white moderate than with the white racist. When she adopts state orthodoxy about King and civil rights, the American liberal participates in the institution of respectability politics, the doctrine of which holds central the maintenance of the status quo. In her fetishization of nonviolence and propriety, the generic American liberal works at cross-purposes to the genuine American progressive. We can only rectify this excuse for inaction if we understand it; to understand it is to reckon with our complicity. We should welcome the reckoning.