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When Martin Luther King Jr. was alive he was a public servant, a freedom fighter, a civil rights leader and an activist. As we honor his Jan. 15th birthday a little more than 35 years after he was murdered, King is merchandise. His legacy, which has been perverted over the years by so many for so many different reasons, is now available for use by just about anyone who feels the need to drape themselves in the clothing of righteousness and justice.
Bluntly speaking, King has been put on the corner like a hooker. Who would have ever thought that a dead man would ever be forced to turn so many tricks? It’s all a very sorry commentary on the shameless marketing-is-everything age in which we now live. A spiritual and social warrior can be transformed into a product designed to meet the needs of even his worst enemies.
Need to appear more acceptable to African-Americans, or to demonstrate a knowledge of what our struggle has been about? Image consultants have just the trick. Public figures can just spray a little bit of that MLK fragrance into the air around them as if that will somehow grant them moral authority to say things they have no business saying and to speak on subjects they would do better to leave alone.
For example, I find it interesting that many Republicans over the years have gone out of their way to place themselves in King’s shadow. Seems like every time you turn around there’s another Republican quoting King and trying to pervert his message to fit whatever goals they have in mind.
One of the most egregious examples of this is the way Republicans have used King as their very own battering ram against affirmative action. California’s celebrated anti-affirmative action advocate Ward Connerly has now brought his road show to Michigan to try to repeat what he did in his home state, which is to effectively abolish affirmative action. Connerly, who told me several months ago that he hopes to spread his anti-affirmative action gospel from state to state, strongly believes that he is acting much more in King’s spirit than those civil rights leaders who support affirmative action. Numerous Republican politicians have said the very same thing; they love to selectively quote King’s call for Americans to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. The same Republicans conveniently forget the call was part of King’s sweeping pursuit of jobs, justice and meaningful equality.
In all fairness to the Republicans — hard as it is for me to bring this up — it must be said that it was President Ronald Reagan who eventually signed the legislation that made the King holiday a reality. This is not to suggest that this was Reagan’s idea by any means, or even that he was particularly thrilled to do it. Still, he did know enough to recognize the opportunity as a good political maneuver that might help to place a more racially inclusive and tolerant face on a party that has long been regarded as the party most hostile to just about anything that would benefit African-Americans. It was also Republican Sen. Bob Dole who lashed out at those in Congress who strongly opposed a King holiday when he said, “I suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination.”
Nevertheless, many of those who now profess their love and respect for the man from the highest mountaintop would have downright hated King if he were still alive and able to defend himself against their attempts to mold his message. It’s easy to love a dead hero. I am not one of those who claim to see King as comparable to Jesus Christ — and believe me those folks do exist — but a comparison can definitely be made; imagine how many fewer Christians there would be today if Jesus were still out here holding the church to account for its actions and demanding that Christians follow his example? Believe me, the troop size would dwindle considerably. Similarly, many of those who say they think King is the coolest would be raving and ranting if King were actually here asking that they make all requested sacrifices to join him in a modern-day crusade against injustice.
Many of those old enough to remember seem to have forgotten — and those too young perhaps don’t even know — that King wasn’t exactly a much-loved figure while he was here. It wasn’t just the Southern whites who had it in for him, but an awful lot of blacks had considerable reservations about him as well. A number of those blacks were fellow preachers who were afraid to get involved and felt that King was just a troublemaker who was making it hard on all those “good” preachers who so obediently kept their heads down, focused on a heaven “up yonder,” and did as they were told by their oppressors down here on earth.
Today, King has his own holiday. Both his home and his burial site in Atlanta are major tourist attractions. His name is invoked in numerous pulpits across the land. The “new” Atlanta can arguably be said to be The City That King Built. There are T-shirts and coffee cups bearing his likeness. His life has been the subject of numerous made-for-TV movies, documentaries and plays. King Web sites abound. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a MLK-brand toothpaste out there somewhere, promising users a “smile of freedom and justice” that will overcome tooth decay.
So what would King have to say about all of this if he were given the chance to come back and check it all out for a few days? I’d rather not think about it.
Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer and musician. E-mail email@example.com.