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The Uses and Abuses of the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Politics have diluted King's dream.

As previously discussed on RD, American civic holidays, like the nation itself, are in a time of crisis. New holidays such as Juneteenth have been added to the federal holiday calendar, while others face renewed scrutiny and calls for abolishment. It seems one of the few holidays to pass through this era unscathed is the King holiday. Often, however, I’m forced to ask myself, “What does the King holiday mean?” Clearly, I’m aware of the rituals. There are the interfaith prayer breakfasts and services; civic and fraternal organizations (including King’s own Alpha Phi Alpha) sponsor events in his honor; and beginning in 1994 the King holiday was recognized as a national (later global) day of service.

The “I Have a Dream” speech is referenced ad nauseum, ignoring King’s more radical and fiery rhetoric near the end of his life. As a society, we extol the virtues of non-violence and the collective fate of humanity, but still the King holiday seems to feel empty. In our current social and political climate that’s defined by division, where does the King holiday fit in?

Books, articles, and think pieces abound pointing out that King’s legacy has been whitewashed in service to neo-liberalism. Those on the left emphasize King’s turn toward economic justice in addition to political enfranchisement. As such King is often cited as supporting any number of causes such as reparations and guaranteed basic income, as part and parcel of his Dream.

King’s legacy seems so malleable in the hands of American politicians and others, as his speeches and writing are cherry-picked for snippets to advance one’s cause. Perhaps, King is second only to Jesus in being so often cited by people with such varying social and political agendas. While it’s easy to dismiss conservative misappropriations of King’s legacy as merely the ahistorical and decontextualized use of his thoughts and ideas (e.g., King was a Republican) by the very political forces that opposed him in his lifetime, it seems King’s legacy is more often (and more successfully) deployed as a weapon against those who attempt to carry on his tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience.

This represents the danger and dark side of the elevation of King into the American civic pantheon. The moral authority that King’s legacy is imbued with comes from his affiliation with the Christian tradition. His words and deeds are weighted as examples of the benevolent and true nature of the Christian tradition. The mythic King is deployed as the ideal American and ideal Christian in service to blunting any attacks on either institution.