City Desk

The Three Kings

I frequently look forward to the attention Martin Luther King Day brings to race in America, only to be disappointed when the date finally rolls around. As a black man who often ponders how and why race politics play out the way they do, I eagerly welcome the rest of the country joining in for a day. But as it turns out, the contributions made to the dialogue on race on MLK Day tend to be thin, and to belong to just a few categories. Three of the most frequent, in my opinion, are below.

  • What Would MLK Do?

Let me confess: The "If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive" sentiments that will invariably crop up today kind of irk me. At 82, King's undoubtedly tired ghost is trotted out every MLK holiday to do battle with whatever sociopolitical beast we happen to be most afraid of. Though well-intentioned enough, this rote practice ends up diminishing the man we mean to exalt by making him the apotheosis of some kind of blanket idealism. King deserves more.

  • The One Cool Black Guy I Know

If some are guilty of using King as a foil on MLK Day, the holiday inspires others—usually conservatives—to trot him out like their one black friend. In an effort to not appear racist, they identify themselves with King's message of hope, without actually identifying themselves with the anti-racism he exemplified, let alone his radical economic message (it was, after all, the Poor People's Campaign that brought him to Memphis in April 1968) or his pacifism, which led him to oppose the Vietnam War. As Sarah Palin teaches us via Facebook post, generalities are enough:

Today is a day to reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King dedicated himself to justice and the struggles of an imperfect world. In the face of fierce opposition, he stood up for the oppressed, and he ultimately sacrificed all for equality and freedom. His was a remarkable life of love and service for all mankind. His work must continue.

Note that Palin managed to talk about a civil rights leader who fought for racial equality without mentioning either term.

  • Put On Your Work Boots

Yet another King meme easily spotted around the Web today uses King as an organizing tool. Here, King and his legacy amount to a sanitized political activism based in volunteerism. Though it's always good to help out, starting a community garden isn't exactly reminiscent of the movements that shook the country in the 1960s. Often, when King acted, it was in defiance of powerful political and cultural institutions, and there was blood in the street.

These ways of addressing King's legacy aren't exactly bad; they just come up short on a day that could be used to move us toward a more sophisticated understanding of the man and his work. Of course, it's only been 25 years that the federal government has even recognized the holiday, and plenty of businesses—including Washington City Paper—still don't close for it. So maybe it's not just the rhetoric that comes up short.

Photo by Marion S. Trikosko [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Vacation

    It is nice to see that Smith took a break from the DC9 case for MLK day.

  • Typical DC BS

    We need to keep Dr. King's memory with us throughout the year. He was a brave man who spoke truth to power, even at great personal cost, and tried to achieve his objectives through non-violence. I look forward to his monument being added to the Mall.

  • noodlez

    UMMM MR SMITH I DONT BELIEVE HIS ACTIONS WERE "in defiance of powerful political and cultural institutions", HIS ACTIONS WERE ALIGNED WITH HIS MORALS. HE FELT IT WAS MORALLY WRONG NOT TO BE ABLE TO HAVE 2 HUMAN BEINGS OF DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS TO SHARE THE SAME SEAT ON THE BUS. HE FELT IT WAS MORALLY WRONG TO NOT ALLOW FOLK REGARDLESS OF THEIR COLOR NOT TO BE ABLE TO HAVE A SALES JOB JUST BECAUSE “YOU ARE NOT WHITE”. HE OFTEN SPOKE OF THE MORAL AUTHORITY AND HOW IT CONFLICTS WITH UNJUST LAWS.

    ONE CAN ACUTALLY ARGUE THAT HE DIDNT DEFY ANYTHING (THE ODDS-MAYBE). HE PROMOTED "DOING THE RIGHT THING" EVEN WHEN THE WRONG THINGS ARE CONSTANTLY BEING DONE TO YOU. HE WAS NEVER COMPLICIT. HE ALWAYS CONFORMED. THAT IS WHAT MADE HIM GREAT BECAUSE HE STOOD UP AND SAID "NO MORE"!

    SO YES ORGANIZING A GARDEN IS NOT ON PAR WITH ORGANIZING A MARCH HOWEVER IT'S THE COMING TOGETHER THAT HE WOULD HAVE BEEN PROUD OF. FOLK OF ALL BACKGROUNDS GETTING
    TOGETHER TO PROMOTE AND PARTICIPATE IN AN ACTIVITY THAT SUPPORTS THE WELL-BEING FOR OTHERS OF ALL RACES. THAT COMING TOGETHER COULD INCLUDE BUT IS NOT LIMITED TO PAINTING A MURAL ON A BLIGHTED PIECE OF PROPERTY TO HELPING THOSE LESS FORTUNATE TO A FREEDOM WALK IN RESPONSE TO AN UNJUST ACT.

    AS LONG AS YOU ARE DOING SOMETHING TO HELP FOLK AND NOT SITTING ON YOUR ASS COMPLAINING THEN HIS DAY IS BEING CELEBRATED. I APPRECIATE THE RECOGNITION HOWEVER FROM THE TONE OF YOUR PIECE ABOUT DR KING’S HOLIDAY IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU ARE DISAPPOINTED THAT YOU DID NOT HAVE THE DAY OFF. NOW THAT IS SOMETHING DR. KING WOULD HAVE PROBABLY BEEN IN DEFIANCE OF. FOLK JUST TAKING THE DAY OFF BECAUSE OF HIM.

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