By E.J. Dionne Jr.Columnist|Follow January 16, 2022 at 8:00 a.m. EST
This holiday weekend, Americans will celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of their choosing. That’s not surprising. But it is a problem.
If the devil can quote scripture for his purposes, it’s not shocking that all of us are inclined to cite the pronouncements of historical figures that ratify our own views. Liberals love to remind people of Ronald Reagan’s warm words about immigrants. Conservatives are fond of citing certain John F. Kennedy quotations about tax cuts and national security.Opinions to start the day, in your inbox. Sign up.
King’s role in our history was not that of a politician but of a prodder of our national conscience and a critic of our failures. In his all-too-brief lifetime, he was often condemned as a radical by defenders of the status quo.
The holiday in his honor is thus quite different from, say, Presidents’ Day or the Fourth of July. They are unambiguous celebrations of our country. In principle, at least, MLK Day is a time to reflect on the urgency of social change and the racial and economic injustices that required, as King insisted, repentance and reform.
In practice, precisely because King has become in retrospect a consensual hero, we have turned him into a consensual figure. My Post colleague Robin Givhan said it well in a fine essay this past week: “As the memory of King has aged, it’s taken on a smooth-edged, golden hue.”
King has become a man for all viewpoints partly because he was many things at once.
He was a militant civil rights leader and a preacher of the Christian Gospel. He was a believer in racial concord and an agitator — in the best sense of that word — against the racism that permeated our institutions. He believed in the conversion of adversaries, but getting there often required confrontation and discomfort. King was far more a “both/and” figure than an either/or, yet the capaciousness of his worldview did not stop him from drawing clear moral lines.
Among his many addresses and sermons, a March 1968 speech at Grosse Pointe High School in Michigan offers one of the best illustrations of why it is so easy — and so misleading — to quote King out of context.
Conservatives love to note that King believed in individual achievement and responsibility, which is true. “It’s very important for people to engage in self-help programs and do all they can to lift themselves by their own bootstraps,” he said that day. “I think there is a great deal that the Black people of this country must do for themselves and that nobody else can do for them.”
But that comment came in the course of a critique of an “over-reliance on the bootstrap philosophy” as it applied to Black Americans, given that “no other ethnic group has been enslaved on American soil” and “that America made the Black man’s color a stigma.” He noted that a Mississippi arch-segregationist, Sen. James O. Eastland, was among those receiving a share of the “millions of dollars a year in federal subsidies not to farm and these are so often the very people saying to the Black man that he must lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
“Well,” King concluded, “that appears to me to be a kind of socialism for the rich and rugged hard individualistic capitalism for the poor.”
Similarly, King believed profoundly in moral uplift and the need for individual redemption. “Naturally, I believe in changing the heart,” he said. “I happen to be a Baptist preacher and that puts me in the heart-changing business and Sunday after Sunday I’m preaching about conversion and the need for the new birth and regeneration. … I’m honest enough to see the gone-wrongness of human nature.”
Here again, however, King was making a case against “the notion that legislation can’t solve the problem, that you’ve got to change the heart.” On the contrary, King argued, only legislation could guarantee racial justice.
“It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated,” he said. “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
King was so reasonable and balanced that we forget how angry he could get at injustice, and how impatient he was in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail with “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” They are words worth remembering in our current struggles over voting rights.
King earned this holiday not by being bland but by being bold. He was killed because he dared to challenge us to change. He challenges us still.