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Which Dr. King will you celebrate?

January 16, 2011

Today is the 25th anniversary of the US government’s decision to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a federal holiday. During the past twenty-five years the memory and legacy of Dr. King has at times been honored, misunderstood and even co-opted.

Quite often both government and commercial media reflections on King are limited to recycling his “I Have a Dream” speech or simply focusing on his position dealing with racial justice. Last year GRIID posted a piece that highlighted the last few years of Dr. King’s life, which advocated a more radical transformation of American society. King not only called for racial justice, he was also highly critical of US militarism and the economic system of capitalism.

“We are now making demands that will cost the nation something. You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with the captains of industry….Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong…with capitalism…here must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.”

Dr. King clearly evolved from his work in the south in the 1950s to his work in the North in later part of the 1960s, culminating in his denunciation of the Vietnam War, his work on the Poor People’s Campaign and his support for the sanitation workers strike in Memphis where he was assassinated in April of 1968.

Over the years Grand Rapids has celebrated the holiday in a variety of ways, some which truly honor the legacy of Dr. King, while others co-opt his legacy. For instance, every year there is a “march” that begins at GRCC and walks downtown to Fountain St. Church. The “march” is often led by students who are members of JROTC, a program that is fundamentally a recruiting tool for the US military, which disproportionately targets minority students. Considering King’s denunciation of war/militarism and his commitment to non-violence it seems to this writer that having JROTC students lead a march in his honor bastardizes King’s message.

This year there are numerous events planned in Grand Rapids this year that seek to “honor” the legacy of Dr. King, but one that is a clear example of attempting to co-opt his message. Monday morning the Grand Rapids Urban League is hosting its 11th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Corporate Breakfast. Besides the complete contradiction in the idea of King with a corporate breakfast, the event will honor the legislative career of Vern Ehlers. This raises the question, “how could the GR Urban League honor a man that supported war, unbridled capitalism and did not make racial justice a priority during his time in Congress?”

This irony was played out at the national level as well when the Defense Department’s general counsel Jeh Johnson recently stated that Dr. King would probably support the current US War on Terror. Johnson specifically mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan in a speech at a Pentagon celebration of Dr. King. Fortunately the folks at Rethink Afghanistan have produced this video as a sharp response to such a gross misappropriation of the message of Dr. King.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. safety dance permalink
    January 17, 2011 6:12 pm

    I hate all the stupid stuff about folks “honoring” MLK with speeches by people like Representative Ehlers, speculating that King would have supported “the war on terror,” or even trying to guess what it would be like for King if he wrote from the Birmingham jail via Twitter (I actually saw something about that in USA Today last week).

    However, I’ve also never been too comfortable with folks who attempt to use King to promote their own agenda. This seems to happen all the time with anti-war activists (who more often than not tend to be white progressives/radicals/liberals) who typically use King’s words to bolster their arguments about their anti-war and non-violent positions. To make matters worse, those folks tend to ignore King’s arguments in favor of racial justice and speak only about his anti-war positions. In a way, it’s another example of co-opting the legacy of Dr. King to promote a view that is safe and friendly for white radicals as it tends to ignore King’s comments on race and white supremacy. It also doesn’t compel activists to ask tough questions about race and their anti-war work.

    I’m not saying this blog is doing that, but I’ve definitely seen it over the years from national anti-war groups.

  2. January 17, 2011 8:06 pm

    Thank you so much for your comments. I fully agree, we have to see the comlexity of King and his own evolution on a variety of issues. You can’t talk just about his anti-war position, his commitent to ending racial segregation, his criticism of materialism and capitalism, especially since King (I believe) saw these issues as interconnected.

    Also, your point about anti-war work and organizing that does not think seriously about race is right on. White Anti-war organizers adn activists need to constantly come to terms with their own privilege and practices that are exclusionary.


  1. Which Dr. King will you celebrate? (via Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy) « The Wobbly Goblin

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