Dr. Donna Patterson’s editorial on MLK Jr.
Dr. Donna Patterson recently published a guest opinion editorial on Martin Luther King Jr. in the News Journal.
MLK’s homogenized reputation ignores his radical crusades for rights, justice
By Dr. Donna Patterson
Whenever we turn our heroes into statues or holidays, only part of their personalities, positions or accomplishments survive the transition. In extreme cases, the very essence of the individual is either lost or intentionally changed.
President Abraham Lincoln’s chronic depression; his lifelong struggle with ambiguous beliefs about race and slavery; and his bending the Constitution to the breaking point all become subsumed in his image of the Great Emancipator, the words of the Gettysburg Address and his carved visage in the Lincoln Memorial.
Likewise the Confederacy’s leading general, Robert E. Lee, in becoming what historian Thomas L. Connelly called “the marble man,” has been lionized not only as a great military leader. He’s been inaccurately celebrated as an opponent of slavery even as his slaveowner status, his willingness to enslave captured black soldiers and his policy of ignoring post-battle murders of black troops are studiously ignored.
Similarly, since his secular canonization via national holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. has suffered much the same fate. Within the mainstream of popular culture — and especially in conservative media — Dr. King’s career has been reduced to the March on Washington, the march to Selma and his advocacy of non-violent protest.
The image of Martin Luther King Jr. as a sharp critic of rampant capitalism and whose political views tended toward the radical left is in danger of being expunged from public memory more completely than by removing some statue from a park.
When former California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly writes that King would agree with him that today “government, not racism is the greatest threat” facing America today, he can only do so because we appear to have forgotten King’s core message.
The Martin Luther King Jr. who characterized institutional racism as “a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro” was not advocating, as Donnelly would have us believe, that government “has replaced the plantation as a new form of bondage, which has enslaved generations of Black Americans.”
And certainly, King would never have been “ashamed” of government policies designed to address disparities of wealth, opportunity, health care and education.
Instead, King asked, “What is it America has failed to hear?” His answer: “It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
Likewise, when anger over chronic, racially based police violence culminated in unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, a few years ago, Fox News quickly plastered the headline “Forgetting MLK’s Message” across the screen. Commentators argued that the moment anybody deviated from passively non-violent protest they had destroyed the legitimacy of their own message.
It is more than appropriate to celebrate Dr. King as a man committed to non-violence, and to rededicate ourselves to public and community service on the day set aside to commemorate his memory.
Yet we cannot permit what is at best homogenization and at worse appropriation to turn history on its ear by converting one of America’s original most radical crusaders for civil rights and social change into a small government conservative or a media weapon to be used against the very people whose causes he championed.
— Dr. Donna Patterson is an associate professor of history and chair of Delaware State University’s Department of History, Political Science and Philosophy.