Holidays inspire patriotic clichés. Late December is when kids learn the Pentagon is a kid-friendly organization that tracks Santa Claus. On Thanksgiving, we see violence-averse presidents pardon defenseless turkeys.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is more complicated. Newspapers that during his lifetime denounced the great and complicated man “celebrate” him through an agonizing ritual.
The chief elements are usually a humiliating caricature, followed by an effort to enlist King as an ally in the current political fixations of the paper’s editorial board.
I thought the Washington Post had come up with the looniest of the “Dr. King As We Didn’t Know Him” editorials two years ago, when it wrote, “Martin Luther King Was a True Conservative.”
That piece praised King for working “to turn back extremism, violence and racial nationalism at the height of the civil rights movement,” and for pushing to keep the fight for change “in the American mainstream.”
It went on to say “the faith [King] defended and helped refine” was a “sort of national creed” based on an “immutable truth of the Declaration of Independence,” i.e. our “devotion to concepts of popular government and independent rights,” which was, no kidding, “part of American ‘exceptionalism.’”
This seemed like a really weird description of a person who spent his last years describing the United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
This year’s Post house editorial is called ”We Need Martin Luther King’s Prophetic Vision Even More Now.” More subtle than the “Dr. King, American Exceptionalist” piece, it is, upon a close reading, maybe even more nuts.
After spending last year hailing King as a stalwart defender of America’s “national creed,” this one celebrates him as an enemy of nationalism. It quotes a 1953 King sermon about the dangers of worshipping the “creed of this new religion,” nationalism, which: “…affirms that each nation is an absolute sovereign unit acknowledging no control save its own independent will. . . ”
The editorial goes on to decry current “sovereignty” movements and singles out for scolding a series of authoritarian regimes like Myanmar, Venezuela (“whose government answers to no one”), China and Russia.
These nations, the Post writes, “respond to objections over gross human rights abuses by decrying interference in their ‘internal affairs.’” Worse, in the Trump era, they now get “little resistance from our own America-Firsters.”
It’s not hard to imagine King strongly decrying human rights abuses in all of these places. Nor is it hard to imagine how he’d react to what the Post calls “a presidency… under which the rules of respectability… have been repeatedly broken.” King did explicitly reject “America-firsters” in that series of 1953 sermons on “false gods.”
Still, other parts of the article get a little weird:
“King was a world figure, and he acted and thought accordingly. He knew that while the oppression and exploitation of black Americans was a product of this country’s unique history, there were many places in the world where the forces that produced such evils were never far below the surface.”
First of all, if the exploitation of black Americans was a product of our unique history, how could “the forces that produced such evils” be not uniquely here but generally everywhere?
Also, is the Post saying Martin Luther King, “world figure,” would have — unlike those who now offer “little resistance” — supported a more internationalist, interventionist foreign policy? It sure feels like they’re enlisting him in an effort to make sure rogue regimes “answer” to someone.
These tributes to King often drag the poor man unbelievably far into the weeds of idiosyncratic modern controversies. The Palm Beach Post, for instance, had an amazingly specific editorial this week on how Martin Luther King would have handled the shutdown.
If King were alive, the paper said, he would take stock of “our petulant president, stubborn House speaker and shrinking Senate majority leader,” and “call them out.” But he wouldn’t stop there:
“He would chide every one of those 800,000 federal workers, 2 million contractor employees and who-knows-how-many affected small business owners to call and write their representative, senator and the president. That they should visit and comment on their leaders’ Facebook page, and Twitter and Instagram accounts…”
Possible? I could also imagine King plunging into a profound depression at the sight of Twitter, to say nothing of Instagram. He was less than thrilled about Buicks 60 years ago.
Moreover, logging on to social media this week, he might have seen the FBI tweeting about how it honored King’s “incredible career fighting for civil rights,” or the NRA reminding America that King was once denied a carry permit, or Steve King, who was in the news about 10 minutes ago wondering what about the term “white supremacist” is offensive, insisting that he “long agreed with [King’s] speeches and writings.”
It’s obviously crazy and offensive when the likes of Steve King and the FBI (which sent a letter to him telling there was “only one thing left” for his “filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self” to do – King understood this as a suggestion he commit suicide) claim kinship with King. But it’s a bit of a misread to suggest he was ever anything like a pal to the national media, either.
He seems to have been pretty much universally despised by the nation’s editorialists in life, and not just by conservatives like Bill Buckley. (Although Buckley’s take on King from August 19, 1967 was incredible: “I wish to God Hitler and Lenin had been repressed. And word should gently be got through to the non-violent avenger Dr. King, that in the unlikely event he succeeds in mobilizing his legions, they will be most efficiently, indeed most zestfully, repressed.”)
The Internet captures some of this, but not all of it. You have to go to libraries, back through the hard copies of American newspapers, to see how thoroughly King was vilified by the press at the end of his life.
In 1967, the Tampa Tribune was saying that for King, “publicity is the oxygen of existence.” “QUICK NEGRO GAINS OR MORE VIOLENCE: KING,” blared headline in the Chicago Tribune in August of 1967.
“The unctuous Rev. Martin Luther King has been something of a hindrance to the civil rights movement since he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,” sneered the Cincinnati Enquirer. “[He] has unfurled his banner as a fifth columnist…”
King was routinely described as a washed up, hypocritical attention hog who had taken to advocating public disturbances like blocking traffic because he saw his influence waning within the black community. Hints that he had ties to Hanoi or Moscow were never far off.
The most vicious columns described him as ungrateful.
After King’s famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech decrying our foreign occupation, the Post ripped him for turning his back on Johnson presidency in an editorial called “Tragedy.”
The paper insisted that when it came to civil rights issues, “every administration in history deserves more reproach than this one,” which “has labored the hardest to right these ancient wrongs [of discrimination].” Therefore King was wrong to make the government an object of “undeserved criticism” and “savage denunciation.”
The Post concluded that many “who listened to King with respect will never again afford him the same confidence.”
What happens annually on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is that we’re told a fairy tale about a great man who melted America’s apartheid heart and forced all of society, from top to bottom, to look in the mirror.
In fact, he seems to have enjoyed a relatively short period of acceptance by the national political establishment before being kicked back to the margins, where he was ridiculed until death as an egomaniacal ignoramus with suspiciously foreign inclinations, a Stockholm-approved Jill Stein.
When we see him lionized on his birthday as a would-be pal to the editorial boards of America, we should probably remember that very few of the issues he agonized over in his last years — war, workers’ rights, economic inequality, inadequate housing and America’s position on “the wrong side of a world revolution” — have changed much since his death.
Were he alive today, who knows? The papers and the networks might love him. But the lesson of his life seems more that conventional wisdom is almost always blind to moral greatness in real time.
If there is a new King out there, he or she is more likely being mocked and ridiculed somewhere on the bottom of today’s op-ed pages, while the old one suffers more caricatures up top.