I find no hero more inspiring than the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I see crucial need for his message during the current epidemic of intentional cruelty and persistent moral cowardice at the highest levels in the United States of America.
In testament to the inspiration I have drawn from Dr. King, I revisited his 1967 question “Where do we go from here?” in the title of my doctoral dissertation. He saw two paths before our nation: community or chaos, and he worked for community. He launched the Poor People’s Campaign. He sacrificed everything, giving the last true measure of devotion, not to flag, but to people, all people.
Checking our racialized language, the common understanding of the term “white lie” is that it’s a minor, harmless little fib. I’m instead using it to mean lies told by white supremacists or those told by those who seek to retain the profoundly unequal economy of our profiteering plundering class—starting with Trump.
The annual tradition of sharing favorite MLK quotes, which enters into full swing during the celebration of his birthday, is so fashionable that everyone but the most extreme racists will participate, and even many of them will too.
The ubiquitous white lies of our times obfuscate the depth and meaning of King’s message. The annual tradition of sharing favorite MLK quotes, which enters into full swing during the celebration of his birthday, is so fashionable that everyone but the most extreme racists will participate, and even many of them will too. Donald Trump’s racist career does not preclude his participation. His defenders throughout the GOP have cynically done so as well.
Back in 2011, then-House majority whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA 23rd) posted this to mark MLK Day:
Today we celebrate the life and work of a great man who has left his imprint on our nation and this world for generations to come: Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us to love one another, accept each other, celebrate our differences, and remember that which brings us together – we are all God's children and we are all charged with making this world a better place. Dr. King dedicated his life to this effort, and as we honor his memory, we must ensure that we too are always striving to make a difference.
That was then; now McCarthy and virtually all elected Republicans support Trump no matter how egregious his racialized statements and policies, e.g., calling refugees fleeing war zones “animals” and urging crowds to tell elected representatives who are people of color to go back to their countries of origin (all but one of them born in the US, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a great racist chant). Send them back! Send them back! Um, sure, like Detroit, the Bronx, Chicagothe places three of them were born?
The Poor People’s Campaign is still struggling to find ways to alleviate the conditions of poverty—everywhere. The US enters into “free trade agreements” promising to help people, but the deals tend to increase poverty on both sides. NAFTA, for example, has left persistent poverty and increased unemployment in Mexico, and reduced wages while costing 100,000-700,000 jobs in the US. The agreements work well for elite owners, not so much for millions of workers.
The President who paid fines for racist practices in his real estate business has signed an executive order “that will seek to remove regulatory barriers in the housing market, which would reduce the price of homes and reduce homelessness.” Specialists call that dubious.
The equality King sought extended to all humans. He saw the innocent people being killed in Vietnam as his brothers and sisters. Living up to King’s message means opposing the intentional extension of endless wars and the intentional escalation of violence being perpetrated by White House policies motivated to antagonize and terrorize millions of people around the globe. It also it also means reflecting on the military-complex as a whole. Predating the Black Lives Matter movement by decades, King was familiar with the complaint that African Americans were disproportionately drafted, assigned to combat units and killed in Vietnam, and statistics support that conclusion.
King was diplomatic but clear in his concerns and critiques. Today, he would spotlight the cruel injustice in those opposing reparations by highlighting the ongoing benefits of white privilege, the many harms to people of color from systems much more than overt name-calling, and the continued failure to address the threats of white supremacy. He would draw parallels between the ongoing efforts to disenfranchise and restrict minority votes and the anti-democracy practices of Jim Crow segregation and voter suppression. Of course Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell opposes reparations, his ancestors owned slaves, and he has had a lifetime of benefit he inherited and which he’s grown through corruption.
The racism that elected Trump is the same as the racism that opposed Obama because of his color (not his policies) is the same as the racism calling slaves 3/5ths of a human for purposes of representation in Congress.
King always made fierce calls to action; The Trumpet of Conscience (1968) harnesses his full moral authority to pronounce:
We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and for justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
Naturally, as we’ve come to expect, Trump is using King’s holiday to brag about himself. Just surreal. From his proclamation:
We have seen historic economic growth, with more than 7 million new jobs since my election and record highs in African-American, Hispanic‑American, and Asian-American employment. Through a focused effort of deregulation and growth-oriented policies, we have unleashed the potential of the American economy and bolstered the strength of the greatest workforce in the world, the American workforce.
In 2020 we can all oppose Trump’s attacks on the poor and his efforts to increase instability and escalate violence and war. We can support movement towards equality and challenging injustice, and we all should act with Kingian compassion, courage, and conviction.
Wim Laven, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution.