by Lace Watkins / Special to the OB Rag / January 18, 2011
In more than 40 years since MLK’s death, both the man and his central messages have been distorted by those who would utilize his legacy as a putative ‘brand’ rather than the challenge to power structures and institutions that it was. It is understandable that politicians and corporations would want to align themselves with at least part of the ideals he espoused and very real conviction with which he did it—doing so lends a legitimacy and a certain gravitas to what they do, while serving as something of a deflection to what they do, or more accurately don’t do to truly honor and serve that vision.
This co-option has been seen with corporate public relations press releases and advertisements using Dr King’s name to sell everything from cornflakes to sports cars to beer; with politicians invoking his words, using his vision of a color-blind society to rationalize policies that often hurt and oppress the very populations MLK lost his life to stand with, and, most disturbing, with the military co-option of his birth as a neutered backdrop and cover of their actions, (such as targeted recruitment of minority and working-class students), which, to many, are antiethical to what MLK stood for.
This selective inattention to both the words as well as the context in which he said them, is at best uninformed, and at worst a cynical manipulation and distortion of what he did say. It is not enough to focus on only MLK’s “I have a dream” message and not discuss or attempt to acknowledge, much less internalize and implement the more revolutionary and paradigm-changing aspects. It is not enough to treat MLK as a venerated, yet oddly (and unnervingly) ignored. To say that one ‘honors’ the man while disregarding his vision and ideas is the very definition of disingenuousness.
We as a community, and as a country, can and must do better. To truly honor and respect MLK and his contributions to the America he sought to redeem with his life, and ultimately, with his death must be, at minimum to truly learn, acknowledge, internalize, and strive to live out daily—not only one day a year, but make it a driving force of our own lives, and an informer, indeed a driver of our deepest convictions.
America can and must, both individually, and in our common life in this nation, search our hearts and examine our actions. We must take a good look at the stains of racism, classism, and indifference to what our choices have done to the environment, both here and worldwide, that blot our national collective soul. Then and only then, can we even come close to the ‘content of character’ we say we want, but do so little to actually achieve.