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Martin Luther King Jr Day must be for all of us

It has been 40 years since Ronald Reagan signed the bill making Martin Luther King Jr. Day an official national holiday. In that time the legacy of America’s most famous and formidable civil rights leader has changed significantly. 

Today there are two Kings, hewing roughly to political ideology. For some, mainly on the right, he remains the preacher of peace who sought true equality, as opposed to today’s concept of “equity.” For others King is a much more militant figure who understood that the aggressive methods of Malcolm X or the Black Panthers were another side of his coin, a needed counterpoint.

In this schism of interpretation both sides can point to quotes that back them up. King’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, among our nation’s most famous, is replete with the message of nonviolence, equal treatment and children of all races playing hand in hand. Yet, by 1967 he would famously call the violent riots sweeping the country “the language of the unheard.”

But when we look closely we can see that there is no contradiction in King, rather, it is we in America today who are at odds with each other over King, not King at odds with himself. That is a shame because part of what makes his voice and his soaring words so very powerful is that they are for all of us. 

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Sadly, we are losing that and he is diminished from one of history’s great Americans to just another pawn on our partisan chessboard.

When Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida recently became the first black Republican to be nominated for speaker of the House, this division sparked up again. 

MSNBC’s Joy Reid accused Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, of cherry-picking from King in his nominating speech for Donalds. She argued that the famous phrase cited by Roy, urging us not to be “judged by the color of our skin, but the content of our character,” is the only King quote conservatives know or care about.

In an op-ed, University of Southern California associate professor Hajar Yazdiha put it this way, “…the GOP’s sanitized version only comprises King’s vision of a colorblind society – at the expense of the deep, systemic change that King believed was needed to achieve a society in which character was more important than race.”

This is a valid point that should not be dismissed out of hand. King was after all also a labor leader with some sympathies to Marxism. His path to a colorblind society certainly did veer to the left, but at the same time, he was always careful to present his rhetoric and ideas in ways that were palatable for the most possible people. 

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And this all cuts both ways as well. Yes, King did refuse to outright condemn the riots and looting of the late ’60s, even making some excuses for it, but this too may well have been a political choice. By then the zeitgeist of the movement had become much more militant, and setting himself entirely apart from this younger faction, one in ascendency, could have severely diminished his relevance.

Amid all the disagreement and bickering over the ownership and nature of King’s meaning we would do well to borrow another phrase from the civil rights movement and keep our eyes on the prize. First and foremost, King was a follower of Jesus Christ who wanted all of us, of every race, to love each other. 

Against the mountainous and vast importance of that message, these petty squabbles over methods appear as tiny trees marking a landscape they are dwarfed by. 

Just before his death King said that he had been to that mountaintop, seen that promised land, but like the Moses he was referencing, he was not to get there.

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Nor yet, have we. 

On this MLK Day, we should think more about how we can promote King’s legacy and vision and less about how his vision and legacy can promote our personal partisan politics.

Shakespeare wrote, “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” In Martin Luther King Jr., we see all three. 

It is right and just that we celebrate King alongside Washington, Lincoln and the other flawed but powerful figures who crafted this, the freest and most just society in human history. On his day more than any other, our squabbles must be set aside, and his glorious notion of a nation not stained by racism should be reflected not just in our words but in our actions. 

A very happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day to all.

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