The right's outrageous MLK ignorance

Conservatives had to forget who he was, then misrepresent and disrespect him, before they could remember him

Published August 28, 2013 2:16PM (EDT)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the March on Washington, D.C. Aug. 28, 1963.       (AP)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the March on Washington, D.C. Aug. 28, 1963. (AP)

I’m finally getting around to writing about the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom commemoration this week, mainly because, for a change, so much of the writing about it has been so excellent. Frankly, most of what I’d have wanted to say has been said: Plenty of people have pointed out it was a march for “jobs and freedom,” though the jobs part later got lost. (My own favorite frequently overlooked fact: In a handbill for the march, the very second complaint was that “millions of Americans, black and white, are unemployed,” making clear the movement’s attempt to improve the conditions of white workers too, though most of us didn’t care to pay attention.)

The heroes who never get enough credit – particularly labor leader A. Philip Randolph and his amazing ally and organizer and strategist Bayard Rustin -- have gotten lots of coverage this week. Harold Meyerson reminded us of “The Socialists Behind the March on Washington,” while the Nation’s Rick Perlstein laid out how they had to work to make the march happen, as Kennedy liberals, fearing either violence or attacks on the president’s civil right record, fought it until it was clear King and Randolph wouldn’t back down. Over and over we’ve heard the great story of John Lewis’ fiery first speech draft -- attacking Kennedy’s civil rights bill and promising a “nonviolent” version of Sherman’s march to the sea -- as well as his bowing to Randolph and toning it down. And Brittney Cooper made a sobering point that was vexing me: that this week’s march commemoration, while inspiring, didn’t represent the same kind of political force propelling society forward as the one 50 years ago.

Yet with all this amazing coverage from the left, the right has gotten almost everything about the march wrong, in a way that’s actually shocking, though I guess it shouldn’t be. Maybe we should be glad that they start from the premise that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a great American hero, albeit one they think his commemorators are misrepresenting. Maybe it’s progress that a man once reviled as a communist and thoroughly disrespected by the mainstream media – as evidenced by his hostile interrogation on “Meet the Press” the Sunday before the march – is now lauded by righties from Bill O’Reilly to Laura Ingraham to David Brooks as a beloved hero whose dream has been betrayed – but by the left, not by them.

These faux-devotees of the great MLK, these history-challenged concern trolls, remember only King’s admittedly inspiring line about wanting his children judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” They don’t remember that he was a radical, in fact, a socialist. That he was about to launch a multiracial Poor People’s Campaign that was unpopular even with some of his top lieutenants, who didn’t think the movement was ready to venture beyond black issues. They forget the New York Times editorialized against his joining the movement against the Vietnam War (a move that even some of his closest allies, including Bayard Rustin, second-guessed). Their tributes never mention that he died supporting a strike by mostly African-American sanitation workers in Memphis.

Rick Perlstein may have said it best on “Up With Steve Kornacki” this weekend: “Frankly, Martin Luther King had to be forgotten before he could be remembered.” Or as King’s lawyer, Clarence B. Jones, told Michele Norris on NPR, after the march the FBI considered King “the most dangerous Negro in America.” The right is willfully ignoring what King and the march stood for, and getting away with it.

* * *

If Laura Ingraham’s comments were the most dumb and vicious, George Will’s (on ABC's "This Week") were the most outrageous, because they’re so widely and casually and cruelly held. Will disrespected and misrepresented not just King, but a man he and the rest of the right often pretend to venerate even more, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, by claiming that single motherhood, “and not an absence of rights, is surely the biggest impediment” to equality for African-Americans.

“A young social scientist from Harvard working in the Labor Department published a report,” Will told the other panelist pedantically. “His name was Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He said, ‘There is a crisis in the African-American community, because 24 percent of African-American children are born to unmarried women. Today it’s tripled to 72 percent. That, and not an absence of rights, is surely the biggest impediment.”

There is so much wrong with Will’s contemptuous ignorance. First of all, while there were things to find objectionable in Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” he makes a passionate case that it was the legacy of slavery, the persistence of racism, black male persecution and generations of poverty that had caused the so-called black family crisis – not the other way around. He also compared black Americans' troubles to those experienced by some of his own forebears -- the rural Irish exiled to American cities a hundred years earlier. “It was this abrupt transition that produced the wild Irish slums of the 19th Century Northeast. Drunkenness, crime, corruption, discrimination, family disorganization, juvenile delinquency were the routine of that era,” Moynihan noted.

And while one common beef with the Moynihan report is that it didn’t offer much in the way of policy prescriptions, that’s reading it in a vacuum (which too many on the left still do). Around the same time, Moynihan helped write President Lyndon B. Johnson's famous Howard University speech on race, which committed the country not merely to equality of opportunity but demanded efforts to achieve a much more controversial "equality of results.” Working for Johnson's Labor Department, Moynihan proposed public works jobs and affirmative action measures, as well as a guaranteed national income, to lift black families, whether they were headed by one or two parents, out of poverty. Later, under Richard Nixon (a career move that sealed his reputation as a proto neoconservative), he again proposed a guaranteed family income. Might Will join his friend Pat and back such policies today?

Clearly Will disrespected his beloved Moynihan as much as he did King. I also have to ask, of all of the conservatives railing against the scourge of single motherhood this week (Bill O’Reilly aped Will Monday night): If the black poverty rate is explained by the rise of the single-parent family, why has the poverty rate declined by almost 40 percent, from 41 in 1968 percent to 26 percent today, when the percent of black households headed by a single mother has almost tripled. Shouldn’t it have gone up, as the rate of single motherhood did?

The forces behind the rise in black – and white – single parenthood are complicated, but Will hasn’t bothered to have a new thought about them since he pretended to read the Moynihan report almost 40 years ago.

The truth is, today’s conservatives are the direct political and intellectual descendants of people who sneered at King and his 1963 March on Washington. I was stunned to watch a rerun of “Meet the Press” from the Sunday before the march, and to find that the four questioners treated King and NAACP head Roy Wilkins with the contempt and suspicion you’d expect if they were grilling accused criminals.

They badgered King with questions about Bayard Rustin’s youthful support of the Communist Party, and harangued Wilkins about how he could be so irresponsible as to bring “100,000 militant Negroes” to the nation’s capital, given the violence and mayhem we all know militant Negroes are bent on. They peppered both men with surreal queries about how all the “reasonable people” thought the civil rights leaders were demanding too much, too soon -- and then, if they got it, weren’t they just going to continue to fight for ever more unreasonable demands, since that’s what “militant Negroes” do? The patience of King and Wilkins on the show that day was nonviolence in action. When the march came off without one single arrest, a day-long tableau of our highest principles in action, there began a grudging but still halting and uneven extension of humanity to the civil rights leaders and the black masses they represented -- and a whitewashing of King's real agenda.

Fifty years later, of course, the same impulses on the right – I’d argue it’s repressed white guilt, which then produces lurid fantasies of black vengeance – told us there were going to be ugly riots if George Zimmerman was acquitted. But there weren’t. No matter. The presence of Trayvon Martin’s parents among the honored marchers and speakers in Washington last Saturday was enough to convince the white-grievance mongers that this year's march actually was what the 1963 march was trumped up to be: an orgy of black revenge. Except, again, there was no violence, and meanwhile George Zimmerman was free to have his picture taken at the factory that made the gun he used to kill Trayvon Martin, on the eve of the march, because it’s a free country, and “George is a free man and as such is entitled to visit, tour, frequent or patronize any business or locale he wishes,” as his brother Robert told Yahoo News.

* * *

We celebrate another anniversary on this day: Coincidentally, or not, five years ago Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination as its first black presidential candidate, on the 45th anniversary of the great civil rights march. It’s hard not to evaluate Obama with the standards of King’s legacy, but it’s probably wrong, or at least premature, to do so. Still, with the National Security Agency scandal roiling, and the war drums beating louder about Syria, I find myself hoping he’s studying not just King, but the tragic lessons of Lyndon Johnson.

On this march anniversary week we’re reminded once again of what a good president Johnson was on the issue of civil rights, how comparatively brave and legislatively savvy, compared with everyone who came before him. But his legacy, on the left, is that awful war he didn’t have the courage to disengage from. “I am not going to be the first president to lose a war,” he told advisors and Congress members, and that, not eradicating poverty or ensuring civil rights, was his north star.

I worry that Obama, and in fact any Democrat who would be president right now, feels the same unwillingness to be the guy who loses another war -- pick a war, any war, we have so many to choose from, some winding down, others escalating.

Still, I’m uncomfortable with some on the left using this occasion to rail against Obama’s national security policies, using King as a cudgel. Even Rick Perlstein was too quick to put Edward Snowden in the pantheon of civil rights greats, alongside King and Randolph, men who lived their whole lives under a crushing system of injustice, and who poured their adult lives into outsmarting it. Snowden’s portrait doesn’t belong with theirs on the wall of heroes, at least not yet. Only Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker managed to find the right sense of proportion as he raised the irony of Obama’s role as the first black president commemorating those heroes, all of whom were victims of the fledgling surveillance state of their time.

I had a productive conversation about this recently with James Peterson, professor of Africana Studies at Lehigh University and a fellow MSNBC analyst, on Martin Bashir's show. He worried aloud that some on the left care more about Snowden’s revelations than the ongoing “stop-and-frisk” controversy and other civil liberties issues, like racial profiling, experienced exclusively by blacks and Latinos. I made the plea that people who care about social justice have to – and many of us do – care about both sets of issues, and he agreed. But the unspoken question was, which should be prioritized, when?

I admit, during this commemorative week, I’ve come to think it’s wrong for white people in particular to deploy King as a weapon against our first black president. It simplifies the context in which both men have had to struggle, against staggering odds. It cheapens them, and us – especially on this day. History will no doubt compare them, but historians will have more information and more wisdom than we have today. Obama is the president, of everyone, charged with advancing liberty and justice as well as keeping us safe. He has disappointed me, profoundly at times, but I will not find him wanting, at least not today.

Still, were he alive, I have no doubt but that King would still be marching. He got a holiday after he was silenced; had he never been silenced, I'm not so sure he'd have gotten a holiday, because he would have kept pushing us, all of us, to live up to our highest ideals.

By Joan Walsh