Monday, January 17, 2005

Martin Luther King Day

Another MLK day has rolled around and the message of King is yet again being twisted this way and that depending on whoever is speaking. King joins Thomas Jefferson as the only Americans I can think of whose thoughts and philosophy are still extremely relevant to modern Americans but have been pasteurized so that anyone of any political philosophy can and does use them to push their own agenda. I mean when George W. Bush is quoting King, there is something weird going on. But King's own family does the same thing. MLK III in today's speech discussed how if his father was alive today, he'd be supporting tsunami relief. You think so? Wow, III, really go out on a limb there. Anyone to the left of Michael Savage supports that.

John Lewis got it right when he said that King would likely have opposed the war on Iraq. But of course the sanitized version of King didn't support such controversial causes. Even for many African-Americans at this point, King stood for stopping segregation on buses and voting rights. And of course he did, but he stood for so much more. Few, except for those of us isolated on the left, talk about his stands against Vietnam and for labor, the poor, and human rights around the world. Those are too controversial for even many blacks to embrace, as they were in 1966 and 1967 when he articulated them.

Incidentally, for those readers who don't know, my analysis of how African-Americans interpret King comes from when I worked as a park ranger for the MLK National Historic Site in 1999.

It is interesting however how everyone uses King for their own political purposes. For conservatives, the message of King was individual rights and therefore they quote him to oppose affirmative action. For middle-class blacks, it was about equal political and economic opportunities. For the left, his message was about human rights, peace, and equality for all. To me, the last interpretation is the most correct, but perhaps I am filtering his message through my own beliefs.

Jefferson has also had his thoughts and philosophy interpreted 5000 different ways. I knew a guy who did a master's thesis on how Jefferson was used by both segregationists and civil rights activists during the 1950s and 1960s for example. Are there other American thinkers/political figures who have had similar post-mortem histories to Jefferson and King? I'd be curious if you know of anyone.