Remembering The Dr. King Conservatives Find So Damn Inconvenient
Photo: Dick DeMarsico, US Library of Congress

If Republicans were capable of shame and intellectual consistency, Martin Luther King Day would prove uncomfortable for them. After all, they insist America’s founding was not rooted in white supremacy, and that the nation itself was never actively, aggressively racist. If that’s true, why do we need to celebrate Dr. King as a transformative figure?

Conservatives' favorite MLK quote — possibly the only one they know — is “I have a dream that my four little children will 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.” The key words here that conservatives ignore is one day, meaning it hadn’t happened yet. If America was already a post-racial utopia, Dr. King would've just been a guy who gave speeches. We might as well have a national holiday for the Four Tops.

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But let’s not waste time today dragging hypocritical statements from Republicans who’ll take a break from suppressing the Black vote to claim that if Dr. King were alive today, he’d resent almost everyone who’s Black and presumably host one of the Fox News prime time hours.

Instead, let’s appreciate Dr. King’s own words, which are more prescient than ever.

During a July 1963 interview, Dr. King was asked about President John F. Kennedy’s proposed civil rights legislation that would end racial segregation in public accommodations and strengthen voting rights. Dr. King believed the majority of Americans supported the effort, but that damn filibuster would obstruct the will of the people and deny racial minorities their constitutional rights.

DR. KING: I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting. They won’t let the majority senators vote. And certainly they wouldn’t want the majority of people to vote, because they know they do not represent the majority of the American people. In fact, they represent, in their own states, a very small minority.

Joe Manchin likes to invoke his idol, Robert Byrd, but the former senator from West Virginia actively filibustered the Civil Rights Act. Cloture was eventually reached (with an even higher threshold of two-thirds of the Senate), but Byrd and other opponents of the bill weren’t trying to make it better through vigorous discussion about whether Black Americans were people. They wanted to kill the bill and preserve injustice for another generation.

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Dr. King didn’t retreat into a well-earned retirement once the Civil Rights Act was passed. He knew there was still much work to do. During his 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech, he addressed America’s vast (and intentional) racial inequality, which had not vanished with the Civil Rights Act.

DR: KING: When the Constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxes and representation declared that the Negro was sixty percent of a person. Today another curious formula seems to declare he is fifty percent of a person. Of the good things in life, the Negro has approximately one half those of whites. Of the bad things of life, he has twice those of whites. Thus, half of all Negroes live in substandard housing. And Negroes have half the income of whites. When we turn to the negative experiences of life, the Negro has a double share: There are twice as many unemployed; the rate of infant mortality among Negroes is double that of whites; and there are twice as many Negroes dying in Vietnam as whites in proportion to their size in the population.

Dr. King actively opposed America’s own warmongering nature. He spoke out against the Vietnam War, because his belief in nonviolence extended beyond Southern segregationists. Everyone’s humanity mattered, including whoever the American government considered its enemy at the moment. Dr. King wouldn’t have been down with drones or conservatives who valorize gun ownership.

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While the white conservatives at the National Review blamed Black people fully for their woes, Dr. King didn’t hesitate to place the blame where it truly belonged. In his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, he wrote, "No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. [...] The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law."

Across the country, we are seeing white backlash to inconvenient history. Conservatives will use a sanitized version of Dr. King to smear today’s Black leaders. Today and tomorrow, let’s remind America of the true Martin Luther King Jr.


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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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