MLK Day Is Not a Destination

Martin Luther King JrIt is Martin Luther King Day! It is the day we celebrate the mythic figure rather than the man. And that is how it should be because no country has ever celebrated an actual man. But at least King is a happy exception to Lord Acton’s observation, “Great men are almost always bad men.” King was that kind of man Acton had in mind when he equivocated. Still, given that we are celebrating the symbol and not the man (we celebrated his birthday when it actually occurred last Wednesday), I would prefer to call it, “Civil Rights Day.”

I know that’s kind of generic, but it does have a few advantages. One very big one is that while King was hugely important to the civil rights struggle, he was hardly alone. What’s more, the civil rights struggle continues. Just ask blacks in Virginia. As I’ve noted before, “Everyone now accepts that poll taxes were a real issue meant to stop poor blacks from voting. What are voter ID laws other than a poll tax by another name?”

But I have a not-so-pure reason for wanting to call today Civil Rights Day. Republicans really bug me when it comes to Martin Luther King. Because he has become a mythic figure just like George Washington, he is cuddly and can be embraced by everyone except people who are explicitly bigots. I would find it less annoying to argue about the continuing civil rights struggle (Republicans think it ended in 1965!) than to argue about how King would now support the Republican Party.

Last night, TMCB Patriot sent me to the following image made by some true believing Republican:

Black Republicans

As TMCB Patriot noted, MLK Was A Republican! Photo Montages Don’t Lie. I guess I can see how a Republican who said, “We believe in setting people free,” would think that. And all that disguised control in the form of charity! I can just imagine King saying those immortal words, “”Free to starve, free to starve! Thank God almighty we are free to starve!”

But this is the kind of nonsense we get from Republicans. They really are the postmodern party: reality is whatever we agree on. So if they say that Martin Luther King was a Republican long enough, he must have been. Just like in the 1960s they said (And some still do!) that he was a communist. But there is no evidence of either of those claims. Publicly, King stayed nonpartisan. Privately, he clearly tended Democratic.

What I find interesting is that Martin Luther King Sr was a Republican. At least he was until 1964. And then in the 1970s until his death in 1984, he was an outspoken Democrat. His political journey indicates what happened to the parties. The Democrats—especially in the South—had been a racist party. Similarly, the Republican Party used to be in favor of civil rights. But the Democrats evolved on the issue and the Republicans devolved on it. That’s why the image contains pictures of pre-Civil War icons.

Look at the whole message of the image: blacks vote Democratic out of habit or something. The use of the Elbert Guillory quote implies that blacks are either stupid or childish for voting Democratic. But note that the image reveals its own lie. Yes, blacks used to vote overwhelmingly Republican. And then they changed—because the parties changed. At least when the Democrats were a racist party, they didn’t run around whining that blacks were just voting Republican out of habit.

So happy Martin Luther King Day! And happy Civil Rights Day! But it is not a destination, just another step on an eternal journey.

Update (20 January 2014 11:35 am)

Ed Kilgore has a great King quote from a 1965 sermon:

About two years ago now, I stood with many of you who stood there in person and all of you who were there in spirit before the Lincoln Monument in Washington. As I came to the end of my speech there, I tried to tell the nation about a dream I had. I must confess to you this morning that since that sweltering August afternoon in 1963, my dream has often turned into a nightmare; I’ve seen it shattered. I saw it shattered one night on Highway 80 in Alabama when Mrs. Viola Liuzzo was shot down. I had a nightmare and saw my dream shattered one night in Marion, Alabama, when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot down. I saw my dream shattered one night in Selma when Reverend Reeb was clubbed to the ground by a vicious racist and later died. And oh, I continue to see it shattered as I walk through the Harlems of our nation and see sometimes ten and fifteen Negroes trying to live in one or two rooms. I’ve been down to the Delta of Mississippi since then, and I’ve seen my dream shattered as I met hundreds of people who didn’t earn more than six or seven hundred dollars a [year]. I’ve seen my dream shattered as I’ve walked the streets of Chicago and seen Negroes, young men and women, with a sense of utter hopelessness because they can’t find any jobs. And they see life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. And not only Negroes at this point. I’ve seen my dream shattered because I’ve been through Appalachia, and I’ve seen my white brothers along with Negroes living in poverty.


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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

3 thoughts on “MLK Day Is Not a Destination

  1. I like how you can effectively always call the kettle…….
    Thanks for clarifying things for us who are easily misled.

  2. @will – I had to re-read the article to figure out what you were talking about. Yeah, people don’t develop in a vacuum. I try not to use the "Jr" with MLK, because I think we can take it for granted that we are talking about him. And if we aren’t, we note it.

    King’s dad was a great man. But as I discuss here, he is a great symbol too. He really does show what happened to the Republican Party. I think the whole turn against civil rights and the Southern Strategy were really the beginning of the Republicans going on tilt. When you give up an important ideal that your party was based upon, the rest is soon to go.

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