The repackaging of MLK

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Seems like every politician and commentator is moved this week to give their spin on what Martin Luther King Jr. would think if he were around today, which is a very convenient thing to do to a person who is not around to correct them.

There is no doubt that some of the things King had envisioned for a more equitable America have come to pass, albeit belatedly. The fact that we have a black president, with prominent women and Latino candidates for 2016, surely is evidence that many barriers have disappeared. The fact that there has to be a Black Lives Matter movement may be a sign that all is not as ideal in our society as some would like us to believe.

I wonder if King would be troubled by a lack of compassion toward immigrant families, and an attitude that has many of our leaders calling for construction of massive razor-wired walls to keep those who dream of a better life from getting a crumb of the American pie.

Would he protest against growing suspicion and hatred against Muslim Americans, and separatist movements to prevent middle eastern refugees from seeking refuge?

How about an economy in which health insurance is bankrupting families, and in which the cost of a basic college education forces students and their parents into a lifetime of debt?

I wonder if he would be concerned with the infighting between political parties, where it has become more important to damage the opposing party's image than to achieve anything positive for their country.

Would King be alarmed that after all these years of integration, "minority" students still have lower rates of success achieving an education?

Might King see today's segegation not as a racial one, but as an economic one? The gap between the haves and have nots seems only to be growing, and even people who work more than one job are left struggling with little hope of improving their situation.

Honestly, I have no idea what King would think. Neither should anyone else presume to put words into the mouth of an icon from another era. None of us know what King would think or say, and none of us have any right to use and twist the man and his mission for our own selfish uses today, including politics.

One thing we can note is that history has rendered a revolutionary King into something he never was in real life - a fluffy, feel-good teddy bear spouting hearts and hugs.

King was a real man, with real shortcomings and doubts like all others. He was a complex figure, both preaching peace and calling for militant action.

Strangely, the memory of the great anti-capitalist is being used to sell everything from Martin Luther King toothbrush holders to baseball caps, pillows to neckties, bath mats to dog collars. He's been made a commodity.

Kids singing to elderly people or volunteering to pick up litter in his name, I imagine would be smile-worthy, if he were around to see it. But that was not the form of social change the real King was after.

Would he be happy with a holiday in his name? Maybe not so much if it meant some people not having a paycheck for that day, or some kids not being educated that day because some schools are closed in his honor.

It is a credit to America to try to memorilize, 48 years after his death, a man who led a movement for equality. It's wonderful that children are taught a couple of inspiring lines from a single speech.

But there was an awful lot more to Martin Luther King Jr., and his times, than that, and we need to teach and remember that too. You can't just take the pretty pieces of the picture, congratulate ourselves on no longer having segregated buses and lunch counters.

What would MLK think of the violence in the streets in places like Ferguson, Missouri? Or young soldiers entangled in an vaguely-defined overseas war on terror for 15 straight years under both parties' watch?

After 48 years, we may not have come as far as we would like to imagine.

Certainly not when hundreds of people in our own community need food pantries to survive, and when young adults who have grown up almost all their lives in Storm Lake are left one election away from being in line to be deported.

If anyone takes the time to read the writings and speeches of King's career, it will be hard for them to relate to what he has been made today - a bland, safe uncle figure Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

In his time, particularly late in his activities, King was branded a radical, often unpopular even with the media.

He was called subversive for a prophetic denunciation of the Vietnam War in 1967. And unAmerican for suggesting a Poor People's Movement and a 1968 labor uprising of Memphis sanitation workers.

Many of the politicians who try to co-op King's legacy for themselves this week, I guarantee you, would be scared to death of the man if he were alive today.

King's goal wasn't for everyone to be holding hands and singing Kumbayah, either.

In fact, he had his doubt about equality for the sake of assimilation. "I think we may be integrating into a burning house," he once told a friend.

This King was fearless, unrelenting. He spoke of a "fierce urgency of Now," insisting on aggressive action: "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism."

He provoked, critiqued, risked and challenged.

The real King was not the holiday King. His role, ultimately, was to unsettle power and challenge the comfortable status quo. We may still need that today. Instead, we get politics and an "I Have a Dream" dog bowl.