The Complex Legacy of a King

I must confess that I’m always a little squeamish when it comes to writing about the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I read all the tributes and the calls to honor the work of this great man this week, and some of them, regardless of how sincere they may be, make me squirm. Political partisans on both sides are trying to claim Dr. King as their own, and this tug of war over a dead man’s life feels out of place when he’s not here to speak for himself. Even members of his own family are at odds over how his legacy translates into today’s policy debates.

I suppose that’s a good thing in at least one respect; if both sides are trying to lay claim to Dr. King’s legacy, they are both in their own way acknowledging him as a great man. I just feel that, like any man, Dr. King can’t be reduced to a political talking point because he was much more complex than that.

For example, a lot of conservatives like to point out that “Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican.” That statement sends liberals into a howling frenzy, but the whole story isn't that simple.

Dr. King’s father was certainly a registered Republican, and most black people were Republicans at one point in our history because of the party’s legacy of opposing slavery and advocating for civil rights. The people, especially in the South, who terrorized and neutered the black community for a century after the end of the Civil War, whether by statute or hangman’s noose, were Democrats.

Dr. Condoleeza Rice declared at the 2000 Republican National Convention that, "My father joined our party because the Democrats in Jim Crow Alabama of 1952 would not register him to vote. The Republicans did."

Her belief in the 2nd Amendment is grounded in the fact her father wouldn’t have been able to protect their home from Ku Klux Klan nightriders had they submitted to local gun registration ordinances, because the authorities would have confiscated their guns and left them defenseless.

So in the political climate of the time, no one would have been shocked or surprised to learn that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican. There is no official record of him being registered as either a Republican or a Democrat, however, and even family members disagree on his party affiliation.

Complicating the issue is the fact that liberals have done a masterful job of whitewashing the Democratic Party’s racist history and casting it in its entirety on conservatives and the Republican Party.  It is an astonishing revision of history to have 111 years of principled support for civil rights by the GOP, and an equal period of violent opposition by the Democrats to black people becoming equal heirs to the American Dream, practically declared null and void. History, at least the Democrats' version of it, began in 1965.

Even I was once persuaded that Republican efforts to win the South from 1968 forward were based primarily on veiled appeals to racism. I have since learned that this was yet another stroke of marketing genius by the liberal establishment, and their talking points about the infamous “Southern Strategy” are at odds with the facts. But that’s a topic for another piece.

What we do know is that then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy called "Daddy" King after his son’s arrest for participating in a sit-in demonstration, and offered his support. The elder King asked Kennedy to secure his son's release, Kennedy came through, and King promised to deliver as many black votes as he could to the Democratic presidential contender. One of those was most certainly the vote of his son.

Kennedy’s actions shouldn’t be taken for granted, either. Contrary to the legend that has sprung up around the martyred president, he was indifferent at best to the civil rights movement, voted against the 1957 Civil Rights Act when he was a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, and was critical of the Freedom Riders as unpatriotic for taking the nation’s focus off of the international threats posed by global communism. His brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, had to persuade him to call the Kings and offer his help. On the issue of civil rights, he was not a trailblazer, but a politician who used the calculus of wins and losses to determine his actions.

Nevertheless, his help laid the groundwork for a seismic political shift that captured practically an entire segment of the American population from that moment to the present day. In my book, SELLOUT: Musings from Uncle Tom’s Porch”, I describe the dramatic impact of that shift:

Richard Nixon, considered by many as the least likable Republican in history, got 32% of the black vote in the 1960 presidential race. But the next Republican nominee for president in 1964? Just 4%. No Republican presidential candidate has gotten more than 15% since then.

Even Dr. Rice was a registered Democrat until 1982, this despite her father’s Republican roots and the violence, perpetrated by southern Democrats, to which she was exposed as a little girl in Birmingham.

Therefore, the King Republican meme is more or less preaching to the converted and stirring the emotions of the doubtful. The jury is still out on whether or not it helps to initiate a dialogue for transformation.

Conversely, the self-appointed guardians of his legacy take faux offense at conservatives who cite the words from his famous "I Have A Dream" speech, especially when he declared, "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."

To conservatives, this is indicative of his vision for a society in which harmony reigns because race has become irrelevant, and they push for a "color-blind" society. Liberals do not believe this vision is attainable unless all vestiges of racism are eradicated, and until then, any policy that promotes racial preference is designed and implemented with that goal in mind.

Frankly, both arguments betray a hopelessly Utopian view of human nature. Race will always be with us, whether it is used to uplift, belittle, isolate from or gain advantage over others. If race is always with us, then racism is likewise inevitable.

This shouldn't come as a shock to those of us who follow Christ. Racism is a sin, and sin is a permanent condition of the human heart. All the laws of human history until the present day have not eradicated, nor will they ever eradicate, sin.

Neither is racism the exclusive province of one political party or ideology. Racism can take the form of an iron fist or a velvet glove; it can be physical enslavement, institutionalized discrimination, or condescension masking as charity. No one has a monopoly on this sordid practice.

You can see how difficult and fruitless it is to reduce Dr. King to a "red" or "blue" campaign theme. Truth be told, were he alive today, I expect he would exhibit the same complexity that leads the black community to be, according to opinion polls, ideologically moderate to conservative in their beliefs but politically liberal in their allegiances and voting patterns.

So if Dr. King doesn't fit neatly into one camp or another, where does his legacy lead us? If a color-blind society or the eradication of racism are not truly achievable goals, how do we function as a free people despite race? If racism is immutable, how then shall we live?

Here is what I choose to take away from the life and legacy of Dr. King. He gave us words to guide us in this decision as well and, while less quoted, they are no less powerful:

Nobody else can do this for us. No document can do this for us. No Lincolnian Emancipation Proclamation can do this for us, no Kennesonian or Johnsonian civil rights bill can do this for us. If the Negro is to be free, he must move down into the inner resources of his own soul and sign with the pen and ink of self-assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation. Don't let anybody take your manhood.

"Don't let anybody take your manhood." Those are empowering words, but we must follow them with care. We're not talking about the false bravado of the street that compels us to lash out at the slightest provocation so as not to be disrespected. Our manhood, or our personhood, to use a more expansive term, is what lifts us beyond instinct, beyond emotions, and beyond our circumstances to a place where we have been given control. You can't control your circumstances or the feelings, words or actions of others toward you, but you CAN control your response to them.

Few people in recent history have demonstrated this more than Dr. King. When confronted with fire hoses, police dogs and angry mobs, he responded with non-violence. He responded to crude death threats with words of inestimable beauty and eloquence. He responded to blackmail with perseverance, convinced that his cause was just and would prevail over even his personal failings. He was a man - flawed to be sure, but in pursuing the great work of his life, his ability to discipline himself to respond as he should, rather than as the world and his sinful nature of instinct and emotion tempted him, made him a man.

He stood on the shoulders of great men and women before him, like Frederick Douglass, who overcame slavery, racism and the lack of a formal education to become one of America's greatest orators, writers and statesmen, and Harriet Tubman, also an escaped slave who, after securing her own freedom, conducted the "Underground Railroad" for eleven years to free dozens of other slaves and, in her own words, "never lost a passenger." Douglass himself wrote of Tubman:

Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. ... The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.

They are among the many great black men and women who refused to let their circumstances, or the people around them, dictate how they conducted their lives. In fact, they were living the American story - settling this vast and unchartered land and making it into the world's greatest republic required great men and women undaunted by their surroundings but driven by a dream.

They were not only men and women, they were giants. Who are the giants of our time? Especially when it comes to illuminating the path by which black Americans may stand alongside their American brothers and sisters as equal heirs in liberty, we are poorly served by the diminished stature of those who have followed Dr. King.

We each have a great work to do - in our homes, in our communities, in our nation, in our world. That great work, however, must start within ourselves. No one else will do it for us. No one else is responsible for our responses to the world around us but us.

"When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me." If the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11 were the credo of every man and woman, and each truly strove to live by it, stumbling and falling but never ceasing, the circumstances that press us would soon be rendered moot.

Dr. King did it; as Shay Riley, the founder of Booker Rising, states so simply and accurately, "We won the civil rights movement." Let's be giants - that is the right and proper way to honor a King.