January 24, 2003


Martin Luther King; His Legacy

By Rodolfo F. Acuña

Certainly martyrdom ensured the Reverend Martin Luther King’s deserved legacy. The truth be told, Americans have a propensity for treating the dead much better than they do the living, and if Dr. King had lived, the vultures would have circled over him picking at his perceived flaws. We only have to remember how he was demonized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the good old boys of this country.

But, thirty plus years has the dimmed memories of many Americans who have developed a historical amnesia about the past and today even the Trent Lotts of this world are ready to embrace him. Frankly, the legacy Martin Luther King has been co-opted by his one time enemies who have converted him into an “All-in-One” product. Much like religious paintings portray Jesus Christ with blond hair and blue eyes, Martin Luther King has been reinvented as the champion of a color-blind society who would have condemned the “excesses of the civil rights movement that has oppressed white males.”

Ideally holidays such as that set aside for Dr. King should rekindle our memories of the past and preserve history and thus the truth. But unfortunately just getting him a holiday took a toll and compromises were made to fit him into the “All-in-One” model. The narrative goes that Martin Luther King was a patriotic American who loved his country - which he did. Yet King also loved humanity and was as concerned about apartheid in South Africa and U.S. imperialism in Vietnam as he was about racism in the United States. That is why he uttered the words about injustice anywhere being injustice everywhere — he was referring to the U.S.’s unjust war in Vietnam.

The distortion has gone so far as to contend that if Dr. King had lived he would be supporting the war on terrorism and the impending war on Iraq, which is on its face mendacious. Anyone with an ounce of objectivity knows that if King had lived that he would have been just as offended by George W. Bush’s manufacturing the rationale for war against Iraq as he was with Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 Gulf of Tonkin lies and, in both cases, the rush to judgment of the American people and Congress. Arrogance was arrogance then and it is arrogance today. And, lies were lies then and now whether spoken by Johnson or Bush.

The ability to separate truth from blind nationalism and separate justice from opportunism is what separates Dr. King from lesser mortals. King was a man of principle who would have recognized Bush’s political opportunism which is driven by the polls and a right wing agenda. For years, white Southerners were welded through fear of Black Americans, now Bush exploits the fear of terrorists, real and unreal.

King had a sense of history that would have allowed him to see the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. No doubt his sense of fairness would have also allowed him to recognize the lack of courage of our leaders in picking their targets.

Wars can be waged with impunity in the Middle East because frankly the nations there offer no threat to the US whereas North Korea could have raised the ante. North Korea has powerful neighbors who would have had some say about Bush’s unilateralism. Just as important it would not be a slam bang, thank you sir, affair. However, we have a history of picking our fights; for instance, it is one thing to rattle sabers in the direction of Cuba and another toward China.

Lastly, it was King’s world view separated him from the mediocre. The opponents of affirmative action say that King would have disapproved of affirmative action because it discriminates against white males. Come on, King saw the world in terms of equality, racial and economic! He never separated the two. For example, the odds are that he would have been angered by the mendacity surrounding the rhetoric around affirmative action.

Presently, the US Supreme Court is poised to hear the suit against the University of Michigan Law School, and the cry has gone up that it is unfair to use race as a variable in Michigan’s admission policies. For those with an ounce of intellectual integrity, the attack on the use of race as a factor in the admissions of students is racist. Why should race be singled out?

What King would have been offended by is not the using of race as a variable for admissions, but the class-based affirmative action in college admission policies at all of our more prestigious universities. The reality is that President Bush received preferential treatment in entering Yale and Harvard. Like most rich Americans his parents also could afford expensive test preparation courses, which advertise better scores, better schools, and guarantee better outcomes.

The children of alumni at Harvard University in 1991 were three times more likely to be accepted than other students who applied. Harvard University admits about 20 percent of its entering class based on the criterion that the student is the son or daughter of an alumnus or donor. Sixty-six percent of applicants accepted at the University of Pennsylvania were children of alumni. At Notre Dame, 25 percent of its first-year class was

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