The continuing co-optation of Martin Luther King Jr.
January 24, 2013 2 Comments
My good friend Jermaine McDonald is currently finishing a dissertation (which I can’t wait to read!) examining the evolution of the public view of MLK in the US. King went from a reviled radical to a fixture in the American civil religion. A strong critic of capitalism and US military action in Vietnam, King is now featured in the ads of transnational corporations and has been formally canonization by the American government through a holiday in his name and a memorial in the national capital.
One way in which this transformation has been possible is because people shape King into their own image. Recently on The Daily Show Larry Wilmore pointed this phenomenon out in a humorous way.
Well, it seems that the US Air Force has joined in this shaping of King in one’s own image. They have declared that, because of the racial and religious diversity of the air force, King “would be proud to see our Global Strike team [part of the US nuclear defense system]…standing side-by-side ensuring the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal remain the credible bedrock of our national defense…”
As the folks over at Gizmodo have pointed out, this is a pretty incredible claim considering King once said,
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine. Martin Luther King Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” in A Testament of Hope, 276
While it truly is difficult to discern exactly where King would stand on a host of political issues today, it seems clear that the man who was assassinated exactly one year after declaring the Vietnam War wholly unjust and while planning a “Poor People’s Campaign” intended to push the US government toward radical economic reforms – the man who lived and died fighting the interdependent evils of poverty, racism, and militarism – can not be used to justify public policy that promotes or ignores any of these evils. Specifically, the US Air Force is wrong that King would be proud of the continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons decades after his untimely death which was due, in part, to his protestation of these weapons.
Cornel West has recently suggested that the cooptation of King by those in power has reached a tipping point. I am beginning to believe he is right.
1I will always remember the story I once heard from a former seminary professor about why he left Evangelicalism. He was a student at Bob Jones University when King was assassinated. Upon hearing the news while sitting in class one day every single one of his classmates stoop up and cheered. Now, those same people and their children claim King in defense of their conservative politics. There is no clearer evidence that King’s public legacy is one that everyone wants to claim when even Glenn Beck is attempting to use it to his advantage. The man who is convinced Barack Obama is a socialist uses the man who was pursued by the FBI for years as a suspected Communist, and confessed to admiring something like democratic socialism, to argue against Obama’s neoliberal economic policies. Oh, the irony!