Martin Luther the King

That’s what my nephew answered when I asked the name of his grade school:  Martin Luther the King. It strikes me as consistent with the hagiography of our time. MLK is treated in much of today’s America, especially on today’s holiday, like a latter day Moses:  he led us out of the oppression of segregation to a promised land of equal opportunity that he was not allowed to enter.

This narrative distorts two realities. We are still far from the promised land of his dreams. And MLK was no saint. Come to think of it:  neither was Moses, who killed an Egyptian to stop him from whipping a Jew and broke the original tablets containing the Ten Commandments in anger.

Our record on equality is far from perfect. The statistical evidence for inequality in outcomes (assets, income, health, jobs, education) is dramatic.  So too is the psychological evidence of input bias. We are not talking ancient history here. We are talking today, in post-segregation America, where our housing, schools and churches remain more segregated than most of us like to admit. I’d be the last to deny that lots of things have changed since the 1964 Civil Rights Act made discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin illegal and the 1965 Voting Rights Act sought to end voting discrimination. But we are still a society in which police kill too many black men with impunity and blacks fail to show up in force at the polls.

Nor was MLK perfect. That is one of the messages of Selma, a film noted in recent weeks more for its lack of Academy Award nomination than for those it received. The film conforms to the classic American narrative:  good triumphs over evil, but it still offers a nuanced and equivocal portrait of MLK. Hesitant and uncertain in private with his wife, his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he is forceful in public and in defying President Johnson. This is no absolute monarch but rather a man who tries to stay in touch with his supporters, listens to his advisers (even if he also overrules them) and suffers from guilt about his sexual exploits as well as the deaths of his supporters.

Today, all American politicians present themselves as supporters of Martin Luther the King. Selma illustrates how that is a snare and a delusion. The real MLK was interested not only in equal rights and opportunity, but also in empowering black people politically and economically. He would be dissatisfied today not only with the bias that affects blacks but also with the skewed economic and social outcomes that tarnish the American dream. MLK’s assassination stopped the movement he led in its tracks. Ralph Abernathy tried to continue the struggle for economic betterment through the Poor People’s Campaign, but he was no MLK and failed to arouse the passion required. Bottom line:  we are stuck halfway with supposedly equal opportunity but continuing bias in behavior and sharply contrasting outcomes.

We can and should do better. I suppose beatifying Martin Luther the King may help us, because it makes us seek a more just and equal society. But we need to be clear:  the movement he led was rooted in American ideals, but it sought to change American reality. That is happening too slowly for my taste. MLK wouldn’t be pleased either.

So here, via @adamserwer and @jonquilynhill:


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