Every year around this time I read articles and op-eds about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) that generally fall into two categories. On the one hand, you have leftists and revolutionaries who generally argue MLK was moving in an anti-capitalist direction before he was assassinated. The more extreme leftists claim this is precisely why he was assassinated. They also note if he was alive today, he would be siding with them in their various struggles whether environmental, economic or political. On the other hand, you have conservatives who contend that they are the rightful heirs to MLK’s legacy. They contend if King was alive today, he would take their side, especially in regards to “right to life” and other social issues.
I find most of these discussions to be less than useful. Who knows what MLK’s politics would be like if he were alive today? Yes, he was outspoken in support of the poor and labor issues but I doubt he would share the contemporary Left’s position on abortion. And what would he have thought of the increasing radicalization and fetishism of violence of the New Left? In any event, these sorts of discussions involve extreme speculation on both sides of the political spectrum.
Instead, I think it is illustrative to examine the social and political legacy of MLK. Have the changes he wanted to see in American society become reality? In many cases, they have. De jure discrimination based on race is illegal. Federal legislation was passed providing legal protection and access in the areas of transportation (thanks Irene Morgan and Rosa Parks!), voting rights, public facilities, and education. A good friend reminded me of MLK’s influence in the case of Loving v. Virginia which ended race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States. And of course we have a black president. These are incredibly positive developments for a country as riven by race as the U.S.
But are there any negative elements of his legacy? I realize to even suggest this runs the risk of being labeled an apostate by liberals and conservatives alike. Yet when I examine some of the individuals and groups who claim to extend the progressive vision of MLK to the present I am incredibly disappointed.
To be absolutely clear I do not place any blame for the buffoonery of these clowns on MLK. I suspect and hope he would be disappointed by their antics as well. And I recognize there are plenty of folks who continue King’s legacy in a positive and uplifting fashion.
Enjoy this brief clip of MLK responding to the criticisms leveled against him by Malcolm X: