Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is in the pantheon of American heroes. He is honored with a national holiday. For those of us who write about American politics, life and society it is expected – rightly or wrongly – that on King’s designated holiday we offer a comment, essay or some other thought about his legacy.
The expectation is even greater for black Americans and other nonwhites. Brother King was and is a gift to all Americans — and, yes, the world — but black people are the most direct beneficiaries of his struggle.
Every year brings more writing about King’s legacy and the work which remains. Interviews and talks will be given. Brother King will be quoted. The “I Have a Dream Speech” and the March on Washington will be obsessively referenced by the mass media and others. Of course, the “Jobs and Freedom” part of the march will be left out.
There are the de rigueur TV shows, biopics, documentaries and other coverage of King’s legacy and life, specifically, and the civil rights movement more generally.
This year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, BBC America chose to air a “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” marathon. That iteration features the series’ first black captain as a central character, Benjamin Sisko, as portrayed by Avery Brooks. Given his personal connection to the original “Star Trek” series, I believe Brother King would have enthusiastically approved.
We also see some of the worst types of absurdities on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. History and reality are abused; the truth is made to weep. Such things happened in previous years too, of course, but this year may have been exceptional.
To observe this year’s holiday, Donald Trump and his mouthpieces pathetically tried to deploy Dr. King as a defense against the impeachment process.
Black conservatives are trotted out on Fox News and elsewhere to fulfill their designated roles as apology machines for white supremacy and white racism. Either because of internalized racism or money (likely some combination of the two) these right-wing racial mercenaries will tell outrageous lies to suggest that King would have embraced — or even tolerated Trump and today’s Republican Party.
In keeping with past performances, some of these bought and paid for racial mercenaries will be Dr. King’s relatives. Alas, it would seem that many people do in fact have a price — even if that price is affixed to distorting the life and sacrifice of Brother King.
Too much time will be spent relitigating whether Brother King would have been a Republican, or somehow was one, and suggesting that somehow the Democrats are the “real racists”. Those “debates” are political theater, sophistry bordering on and often crossing over into outright buffoonery.
Brother King was a democratic socialist. Many chain stores hold sales on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — but he was opposed to consumerism and greed.
The U.S. Navy recently announced that it would name an aircraft carrier after Doris Miller, an African-American sailor who was awarded the Navy Cross for his bravery during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said of this honor: “In selecting this name, we honor the contributions of all our enlisted ranks, past and present, men and women, of every race, religion and background…. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, ‘Everybody can be great — because anybody can serve’. No one understands the importance and true meaning of service than those who have volunteered to put the needs of others above themselves.”
Dr. King stood against militarism and war. He famously said, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home: They destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.”
In all, the real Brother King, the radical freedom fighter and critic of capitalism, war, greed and white supremacy has been whitewashed and flattened by the American myth-making machine. Such is the price for being inducted into national memory as a revered public hero.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor of African American Studies at Princeton, reminds us of these things in the new book “Fifty Years Since MLK”:
It was this foray into the tough political environment of residential segregation and political machines that provided the momentum for King’s radicalization. His political maturation prompted him to connect the U.S. war in Vietnam to the deteriorating conditions in U.S. cities, and of even more consequence, it prompted him to search for more effective tactics in confronting the legal menace of segregation in the North and the attendant crises: slum conditions, unemployment, and police brutality.
Within this context, King began to publicly articulate an anticapitalist analysis of the United States that put him in sync with rising critiques from the global revolutionary left of market-based economies. Despite the “affluence” of the United States, it was, nevertheless, wracked by poverty and entrenched in an endless war. King masterfully tore down the wall that the political and economic establishments used to separate domestic policies from foreign policies….
King’s realization was the need for even greater forces to be recruited into the movement to achieve social transformation within the United States. By the end of his life, King recognized the coercive power of other forms of disobedience. In planning a Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C., he called for extralegal protests not aimed at undoing unjust laws but in the name of political and economic demands that represented the interests of the majority. In Memphis, during the sanitation workers strike in 1968, he called for a general strike to shut down the entire city.
Brother King paid a great cost for his radical truth-telling: When he turned his full attention and energy to racial segregation, poverty, war and questions of class inequality, he was vilified by white America as well as by many leaders in the black community. At the time of his martyrdom Brother King was one of the most unpopular people in the United States.
So how did I spend my time on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2020? I chose to read the notorious trove of racist emails sent by Stephen Miller, a senior adviser in the Trump White House.
The Southern Poverty Law Center obtained approximately 900 emails sent in 2015 and 2016 between Miller — who at the time was an aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions — and his contacts at Breitbart News, the right-wing propaganda site then run by Steve Bannon, the future Trump campaign CEO and White House strategist.
In these emails, Miller defends white supremacist neo-Confederates and traffics in eugenics and other forms of white supremacist pseudoscience that purports to prove the inferiority of black people and other nonwhites.
The latest batch of emails analyzed by the SPLC show Miller using the language of white supremacists and the global right, bemoaning the “replacement” of (white) Americans by nonwhite immigrants. Miller also condemns the DACA program and “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants brought here as children) as threats to the “:American way of life.”
Miller even endorses the mass roundup and detention of nonwhite immigrants and refugees by transporting them on trains. For a Jewish person whose family members perished in the Holocaust to call up that imagery is a moral abomination, so grotesque and perverse that it almost defies description.
Why did I choose to spend MLK Day subjecting myself to such things, and wallowing in the worst excesses of Donald Trump’s regime?
Because we must remind ourselves of the enduring power of evil. The evils of racism and white supremacy that Brother King fought against, and which ultimately took his life, have not been vanquished. Indeed, that evil now nakedly and unapologetically occupies the White House. Here is Timothy Egan in the New York Times:
Trump has so desensitized us that a day without a round of blunt force cruelty from the White House is newsworthy. And now it all comes to a boil in the impeachment trial. The facts are not in dispute: Trump tried to force a struggling democracy into doing his political dirty work for him. He tried to squeeze a foreign power into meddling in our election. What is very much in doubt is whether enough good people will do something.
In the process of this high crime, Trump broke the law, as a nonpartisan congressional watchdog reported Thursday. The greater evil is the violation of the lofty purpose written into this country’s founding documents. The smaller evils are the Republican senators who know the president violated his oath and deserves to be impeached, but don’t have the guts to say so.
“Do not, as my party did, underestimate the evil, desperate nature of evil, desperate people,” writes Rick Wilson, the Republican operative and witty Never-Trumper, in “Running Against the Devil,” his new book. “There is no bottom. There is no shame. There are no limits.”
As for the contagion of evil, you need not look far. In Texas this month, Gov. Greg Abbott said his state would become the first to refuse to take in even a small number of legal, fully vetted refugees. These are people who’ve been approved by the federal government for asylum, after being displaced by war, famine or persecution. In the past, people from Vietnam, Cuba and Africa have been welcomed, and have gone on to become some of our finest citizens.
Reflecting on the Trump regime’s white supremacy is also a way of grounding oneself in reality as it actually exists.
Racial authoritarianism and white supremacy are America’s native and original form of fascism. As scholars such as Timothy Snyder, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Jason Stanley, Cas Mudde, Henry Giroux and many others have explained, fascism is a type of eternal present. Through its assault on the truth and empirical reality, the public is made to feel disoriented and confused. Through that process, the fascist authoritarian is attempting to cripple resistance by applying a type of shock doctrine which leaves the public and individuals asking, “Where are we?” “What year is it really?” and “How did this happen?”
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the age of Trump, this assault on time and reality comes into extreme focus. Trump’s election in 2016 and his ongoing reign are a form of counterrevolution against Dr. King’s legacy and the Black Freedom Struggle. In a purge motivated by white rage and white identity politics, the multiracial democracy that Brother King fought for is under siege by Donald Trump, the Republican Party, their media and their followers.
Trump, Miller, the Republican Party and the broader right-wing movement are systematically dismantling Brother King’s and the civil rights movement’s legacy and victories.
In its application of the shock doctrine to America and its multiracial democracy, the Trump regime is even advocating a return to white supremacist immigration policies from the 1920s, which dictated that the country would literally be white by law.
The Trump regime and the right-wing movement at large are even trying to return the country to the 19th century by rejecting birthright citizenship, a protection written into the U.S. Constitution after the Civil War to ensure that black Americans would have equal rights.
Other ghosts and demons of America’s white supremacist past and present were summoned up on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2020.
In Richmond, once the capital of the white supremacist Southern Confederacy, thousands of gun-toting white people — almost all of them white men — marched in “defense” of their imagined right to own guns. The situation was so dangerous that Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency. As historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz shows in her book “Loaded,” whiteness, masculinity, and guns are historically entangled as a form of white identity politics that pose a constant, de facto threat of violence against nonwhite people. Donald Trump, of course, endorsed the Richmond march.
It is no surprise that this protest attracted white supremacists and others who see America’s multiracial democracy as an existential threat to be destroyed, in favor of a country committed to protecting and enforcing white power and privilege for all time. To march in the onetime capital of the Confederacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is so obvious in its racist symbolism and intent as to not merit sustained analysis.
Not too long ago, the ideological ancestors of the white Richmond gun protesters were destroying black and multiracial governments across the South during and after Reconstruction, or participating in racial pogroms and other terrorism against black communities in places ranging from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Rosewood, Florida, to Chicago, Washington and East St. Louis. Those same men (and women) were attacking attacking and threatening black people, with physical violence and legal oppression, in defense of Jim and Jane Crow.
In total, Stephen Miller and the Trump regime’s evil are a story of stark contrasts on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Trump, along his minions, agents and followers, are cruel cowards.
They pick on the weakest and the most vulnerable, putting children and babies in concentration camps; breaking up the families of nonwhite migrants and refugees; kicking the poor, sick, disabled and needy while they are down; leaving the victims of natural disasters in Puerto Rico to suffer.
Brother King and other soldiers of the civil rights movement and Black Freedom Struggle exemplified courage. They literally risked their lives, safety, security and well-being by standing up to the white supremacist terror of Jim and Jane Crow. Brother King and his fellow freedom fighters — both those known to history and those anonymous others lost to it — were powered by moral certitude and righteousness. In those moments of contestation, the courage of nonviolent resistance (as well as the martial tradition of the Black Freedom Struggle) successfully confronted the cowardice of white supremacy in its many forms.
Such a tradition, both in decades past and through to the present, should inspire and empower good Americans to resist Trumpism today. In a moment when so many people feel lost in time and unmoored from reality by Trump’s tide of fascism and authoritarianism, Brother King’s life and legacy offers other instruction and wisdom as well.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a visionary and a prophet. He had a deep understanding of the history of America and its founding as a racialized democracy. He connected that knowledge of the past to his contemporary struggles against white supremacy, racism, militarism, violence and the greed and social inequality of unfettered capitalism. He also looked to the future. Brother King’s “freedom dreams” of a more just and equitable American democracy where “one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls” is a type of prophetic vision. What many people too readily ignore is that Brother Martin was announcing work that had barely begun, and summoning a future which still does not exist.
The struggle against white supremacy in the United States and around the world will be long, and not easily won. White supremacy and racism will not go away with the end of the United States, as a nation or an imperial power. Such forces will exist after that moment. With the election of Donald Trump — especially if he wins a second term — future historians may well conclude that failing to vanquish white supremacy and racism was what brought America down.
I choose not to describe Brother King as a hero. That title elevates human beings to superhuman heights unattainable by most people. Instead, I see Brother Martin, as both an inspirational and aspirational figure. He was not superhuman. He was not perfect. He was a person who lived his principles as best he could and pushed himself to make the greatest sacrifice of all in service to creating a more humane society. Brother Martin, the human being who died at age 39, is relatable. Brother Martin, the human being, means that the rest of us have no excuses for being complicit with, in service to or apathetic toward the evil we see in the age of Trump.
Ultimately, Brother King is an example of how to resist and defeat the forces of Trumpism and other forms of evil, whether past, present or future. We choose to do right. We choose to do wrong. We own the responsibility for our decision.