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One year ago this month, I wrote a column titled “The Pimping of MLK Jr.” to argue that King’s legacy has been perverted by those who profess to love and admire the man. In truth they are doing all they can to destroy everything he stood for — and died for. Here’s some of what I said:
“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.”
And here is what President George W. Bush said about King last week at Georgetown University during a speech he gave both in recognition of the King holiday and in honor of outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell:
“Every year on this day we reflect the history of civil rights in America. … Dr. King loved America enough to confront its injustices, not compromising the truth and not fearing any man — and America loves him in return. …
“By observing and honoring Dr. King’s birthday, we teach the next generation lessons that must never be forgotten. We need our children to know how great the struggle for racial justice in our society has been, and how much work remains to be done. [Applause.] We need them to know that the greatest causes sometime involve the greatest sacrifices, and that history moves forward on the strength of those sacrifices. And we need the children of America to know that a single life of conscience and purpose can touch and lift up many lives.”
God bless Bush for proving my point so well. With one cowboy boot crushing the throat of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, an organization founded essentially to pursue the ideals promoted by Dr. King, Bush has the raw nerve to extol King’s virtues as if he were a true believer.
In short, King George is pimping King Jr.’s memory like a pro.
But just as there is a major difference between turning tricks and real love, there is an equally Grand Canyon-sized gap between how much Bush says he loves and respects Dr. King and what he has actually done to demonstrate that love and respect. According to a recent scathing report issued by the U.S. Department of Civil Rights last year, not long before Mary Frances Berry stepped down as chairperson, Bush is about as committed to civil rights as a wolf is to the care and preservation of sheep.
According to just a few highlights of the lengthy report, it’s pretty clear Bush is much better at talking the talk than walking the walk. The commission takes Bush to task for not providing leadership “to ensure timely passage and swift implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002,” causing a subsequent shortage of adequate funding for voter registration. The No Child Left Behind Act is criticized as being insufficient to close the educational gap between white and minority students. On affirmative action, Bush has abandoned this method of leveling the playing field in favor of so-called “race-neutral alternatives” that do little or nothing to promote diversity. Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency under Bush has done little to address the disparate impact of environmental contamination of minority communities. And finally, the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 was to institute regulations that “facilitate [racial] profiling rather than prevent it.”
So it comes as little surprise that Bush is doing his best to upend the commission. He replaced Berry — a woman who admittedly ticked off both Democratic and Republican presidents alike, as well as her colleagues, in her single-minded and sometimes self-righteous zeal to enforce civil rights the way she saw fit — with Gerald Reynolds, a black, Ward Connerly-style anti-affirmative action Republican who will perhaps be the final nail in the organization’s coffin.
At this stage of the game, maybe that’s for the best.
It’s not that there isn’t still a great need for an effective Civil Rights Commission, but the key word here is “effective.” If the purpose of the commission under Bush’s watch switches from aggressively maintaining and upholding the cause of civil rights to dismantling the entire operation under the guise of “upgrading” the department to adjust to modern times, then it’s better to have no department at all.
Even Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a former head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was quoted recently in the Hill newspaper’s e-mail tipsheet as saying that “the commission has always pushed a civil rights agenda more aggressively than Congress and society at large, and if it fails to continue doing so, then lawmakers may begin to conclude the commission [has] served its purpose.”
The commission was originally created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957 and was charged with investigating complaints of racial discrimination. It has a staff of 70, a budget of $9 million, and no enforcement powers. Although its mission has expanded somewhat over the years, the puny size of its budget and staff power, even after 50 years, is pretty clear evidence that the organization was never intended to be much more than a bug in the ear of the powers that be, and not a very big bug at that. President Ronald Reagan tried unsuccessfully to squash the bug and do away with the commission during his administration. Bush has figured out that a better way to accomplish Reagan’s objective is simply to reinvent the commission to suit his own needs.
There’s more to it than just replacing Berry with Reynolds. He also removed the Hispanic vice chairman Cruz Reynoso, giving conservative black lawyer Ashley Taylor his commission seat while elevating current commission member Abigail Thernstrom, a white affirmative action foe, to the vice chair position. The changes give conservatives the top positions and shift the balance of power from a 5-3 liberal majority to a 6-2 conservative one. That effectively ends the commission as we know it.
On the Supreme Court, it’s expected that Chief Justice William Rehnquist will soon be stepping down due to serious health issues. We’ve heard rumors that Bush just might appoint Justice Clarence Thomas, the worst possible insult to the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall whom he replaced, to fill that slot. Bush has openly said that Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia are his two favorite justices, so this wouldn’t be much of a shock. Condoleezza Rice — an admittedly brilliant, if severely misguided, African-American woman — has been tapped to replace Colin Powell, a highly regarded African-American man, as secretary of state. It has been suggested to me that Bush deserves at least moderate props for making these high-profile appointments, even if they don’t fit my description of the kind of African-Americans this country honestly needs in such positions of power.
Maybe. That’s a question I’ll be struggling with for quite some time. My personal belief is that just because a black person is placed in a position of power in authority doesn’t mean that it’s hallelujah time, and just because a white person appoints a black person to such a position does not make him or her a civil rights pioneer or visionary. This may come as a shock to some, but black people don’t always have the best interests of black people at heart just because they themselves are black.
And please don’t tell me this is what King was dreaming of.
Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to email@example.com.