By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
The scramble to snatch and grab a piece of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy has not diminished one bit in the 20 years since the first King national holiday was celebrated.
Ronald Reagan was the first to grab at the King legacy after first attacking it. Reagan fought tooth and nail against passage of the King holiday bill. After insinuating that King was a Communist, Reagan signed the bill only after Congress passed it overwhelmingly and virtually insured it was veto-proof. But then Reagan reversed gears and apologized to a deeply hurt Coretta Scott King, King’s widow, and effusively praised King as a champion of freedom and democracy. Reagan said that King’s struggle for equality was his struggle too.
During the furious battles that raged over affirmative action in the 1990s, conservatives snatched a flowery line from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and boasted that he would have opposed racial quotas, preferences and, by extension, affirmative action if he had lived. It was a wild stretch. King almost certainly would have been a vigorous supporter of affirmative action if he had lived. But in his speeches and writings, he also stressed personal responsibility, self-help, strong families and religious values as goals that blacks should strive to attain.
In the late 1960s when King denounced the Vietnam war, embraced militant union struggles and barnstormed around the country blasting wealth and class privilege, the red-baiters and professional King haters branded him a Communist. The Lyndon Johnson White House turned hostile. Corporate and foundation supporters slowly turned off the money spigot. The NAACP, Urban League, black Democrats and some in King’s own organization turned their backs on him. During his last days, King spent much of his time fund-raising and defending his policies against the critics within and without his organization. The backbiting of King by some of his one-time friends and supporters got worse when he railed against the penchant for lavish personal spending, luxury apartments and fancy homes by some of his group’s staffers.
In his last installment on King, “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68,” Taylor Branch tells how King stormed out of a planning meeting on his Poor Peoples March in fury at the attacks at him by some of his top aides who wanted to scrap the march. The issue of uniting masses of poor people for economic uplift smacked of class war and was just too risky and dangerous, they said. It would hopelessly alienate their Democratic Party boosters. King was unfazed by their criticism and hurled another broadside at them for their selfishness and opportunism.
King’s civil rights friends weren’t the only ones who took shots at him. Many black ministers joined in the King-bashing. At the National Baptist Convention in 1961, then and now the largest black religious group in America, King and a band of dissidents challenged the convention’s leaders to give more active support to the civil rights battles. They wanted none of that. They flung un-Christian-like threats and insults at King and the civil rights advocate-ministers, engaged in fisticuffs with them and slandered King as a “hoodlum and crook.”
When the dust settled, King was summarily booted out of the organization and set up a rival ministers group. Even after King’s death, when he took his place among America’s heroes, many black ministers still remained stone silent on the assault on civil liberties protections, the gutting of job and social programs and U.S. militarism. These were all issues that King relentlessly and loudly spoke out against when he was alive. In an even more insulting twist, many black ministers, and that included one of King’s daughters, shamelessly evoked King’s name to pound gay rights and same-sex marriage. There’s not a shred of evidence that King would have been a gay rights opponent. Coretta even demanded that one group of ministers cease using his name to back an anti-gay referendum in Miami a few years ago. Yet they still snatch at his legacy and hail King as one of their own on the King holiday.
Then there’s the King holiday. Though many corporations and government agencies plaster full-page ads in black newspapers that extol King on his holiday and tout how much he’s done for them, the King holiday is still rock-bottom among the national holidays that business and government agencies observe. An annual survey by BNA Inc., a Washington-based business news publisher, revealed that about one-quarter of businesses give their workers a day off with pay. That number pales even in comparison to the next least-celebrated holiday, Presidents Day.
King is no different than other towering historical figures, especially those that had the bad fortune to fall to an assassin’s bullet. Hypocrisy, mythmaking, embellishments and outright distortions swirl about them. Everyone wants a piece of the fallen legend to puff up their importance and whatever social and political ax they seek to grind. Fortunately, King’s legacy is still big and wide enough to make an easy target.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an associate editor for New America Media and the author of “The Crisis in Black and Black.”