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Still not free at last

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Larry Smith

During his lifetime, Martin Luther King, Jr. repeatedly went to jail for violating many of our nation’s unjust laws, such as peacefully protesting racial discrimination. His indefatigable pursuit of justice compelled him to voluntarily endure this indignity. Generally speaking, he was released from incarceration after a relatively brief period. Thus, it is quite ironic that, following his assassination, King was given a life sentence based upon his words rather than his actions. In this case, the punishment is reputational rather than carceral.

The court of public opinion has confined King to a virtual jail cell. He has been imprisoned by one phrase, in one sentence, in one paragraph, in one speech. I am referring to King’s plea that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. That phrase has been bastardized to transform King into a one-dimensional character (or caricature) as opposed to the incredibly complex 3-D human being he was. In short, King’s most famous quote is very frequently taken out of context and cynically used by people whose views on racial equality are the exact opposite of his. This is a fact that his children and those who were closest to him have made abundantly clear.

How has this come about? Immediately prior to his death, Dr. King was one of the most unpopular people in America. Already hated by white supremacists, King expanded his list of detractors to include those who favored America’s involvement in Vietnam. (The war was still generally popular at that point.) Further, white northerners who had looked down on their southern neighbors were dismayed that King began attacking poverty and discrimination above the Mason-Dixon Line. This included speaking out against redlining and restrictive covenants that barred African Americans from moving into white neighborhoods.

In short, King was a pariah among most white Americans (who felt that he had gone too far) and even among some African Americans (who felt that he had not achieved enough). A Gallup poll in August 1966 found that 69% of white Americans viewed King unfavorably. This is compared to fewer than 10% of African Americans who held an unfavorable view of King at the time. However, by 2011, a Gallup poll found that 93% of white Americans viewed King favorably, including 65% who viewed him highly favorably. What happened?

Dr. King has been co-opted and sanitized by those who oppose racial equality. They engage in verbal Judo – using King’s words and moral force against the causes for which he fought. Thus, rather than being accurately portrayed as a justice crusader, King is depicted as a mealy-mouthed appeaser. He has involuntarily been devolved into a non-threatening accommodationist who makes white people comfortable.

Had King actually been that person in life, he would not have been so despised. White supremacists understood how “dangerous” he was. Indeed, his enemies understood then (and understand now) who he was much more clearly than most of those who claim to admire him. Some members of the latter group embrace King out of ignorance; others do so out of cynicism. Either way, they must be challenged.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there almost certainly would be no affirmative action without Martin Luther King. At the very least, it would not have started when it did. After having consulted with King and other civil rights leaders, President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which required federal contractors to engage in “affirmative action” to fight racial bias against Blacks. This mandate, along with the historic civil rights legislation of the 1960s for which King was primarily responsible, eventually led to what we now refer to as “DEI” – Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives.

Fortunately, things appear to be changing. I’ve begun to see more and more people stand up to tell the truth about what Dr. King actually stood for, dismantling the Disney-esque coffin in which he has been encased for more than 50 years. King wasn’t murdered because he had a dream; he was murdered because he was a nightmare for racists and those who opposed socioeconomic equality. It is incumbent upon those of us who actually know and believe in what Dr. King stood for to extricate him from the jail from which he cannot free himself.

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