This Martin Luther King Jr. Day Is Not a Day to Celebrate.

by on January 20, 2020 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, History, Under the Perfect Sun

The United States at Present is an Affront to the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

By Jim Miller

With the election of Barack Obama, many hoped that the United States had finally taken a decisive step away from its racist past and was perhaps on the road to more fully embodying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a truly democratic and racially and economically just America.

Sadly, only a few years after the end of Obama’s tenure, it’s clear that nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than bending the arc of history toward justice, it seems that the first black president’s two terms, politically moderate as they turned out to be, ironically did much to fuel the fire of white backlash and emboldened reactionary plutocrats to roll back the clock in a myriad of other ways as well.

Indeed, while the Black Lives Matter movement and other new pushes to defend and/or expand civil rights have succeeded in capturing the national spotlight, on a number of centrally important fronts we have and continue to be moving in the wrong direction.  To understand why this is happening one needs to look beyond the present, as disgusting as the reactionary, racist rhetoric and policy of the Trump administration is, and examine the historic roots of the contemporary backlash.

In Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, historian Nancy MacLean points out how the contemporary right was spawned in part as a response to the threat that Southern elites felt in the wake of the Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision.  What most Americans saw as a move to end racial discrimination in schools, the states rights loving conservatives saw as a disturbing new trend toward “increasing the role of government in economic and social life.”  Thus, what started as a movement to push back against government driven desegregation ended up as a decades-long, billionaire funded movement to fight any form of “collective gangsterism,” which to radical conservatives meant taxpayer funded efforts to protect the rights of labor, people of color, and/or the environment.

Thus, the initial backlash to the civil rights movement was part of an effort to roll back the clock to an era when the government did not have the power to tax or obstruct the privilege of the economic elite (the fact that that elite was white went without saying).  As the civil rights movement marched forward, so too did the intellectual project of the hard right that would ultimately produce the Koch Brothers and their network and the capture of the contemporary Republican party by those aligned with their interests. Their long war has been aimed at undoing the gains that many Americans think made the country more just and equitable, whether those are the achievements of the civil rights movement, the labor movement, or any other collective effort for more thoroughgoing democracy.

In sum, Dr. King’s dream was the right’s nightmare, and they have been working to demolish it ever since those first steps toward a more equitable America were taken decades ago.  If King wanted to dismantle “an edifice that creates beggars,” the radical right’s stealth war on democracy sought to put what MacLean calls “locks and bolts” on democracy. At present, we are in a historical moment where the long war against the expansion of democratic rights and economic justice is being won by the right.

As Vann R. Newkirk pointed out in The Atlantic last week, Trump is “the embodiment of over 50 years of resistance to the policies Martin Luther King Jr. fought to enact.”  Newkirk underlines the Trump administration’s antipathy towards voting rights and universal healthcare as well as his administration’s embrace of white supremacy and racist rhetoric among other terrible developments. I would add to this, the profound deepening of economic inequality, anti-immigrant hysteria, anti-labor policies, misogyny, and endless war.

Michelle Alexander’s fine New York Times piece last week persuasively adds to this discussion by noting that current injustices such as the mass incarceration that has become the “new Jim Crow” along with mass deportations are not historical aberrations by rather a continuation of America’s long history of racism and oppression.  In sum, she argues, “Despite appearances, our nation remains trapped in a cycle of racial reform, backlash and reformation of systems of racial and social control.”

Simply put, this Martin Luther King Jr. day is no time to celebrate.  If King’s legacy means anything at present it is not as a stale history of how we got to the promised land of more racial justice, but as an angry ghost haunting a debased and corrupt America.

In this era of institutionalized white supremacy and reactionary backlash, it’s not time for a parade but for a fight for the soul of the country.

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