Once again Republicans will try to claim MLK — but if he were here, they'd despise him

Dr. King's legacy is a formidable weapon against white supremacy — but not if we allow the right to reshape it

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 17, 2022 10:08AM (EST)

Martin Luther King Jr. | Capitol Riot on January 6th, 2021 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Martin Luther King Jr. | Capitol Riot on January 6th, 2021 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Books possess great power. Those who own only a few, yet return to them like old friends for wisdom, comfort and knowledge, or to revisit a special memory, know this to be true. Those of us who have many books — who read and and reread them and carefully compile our collections — know this also.

Our books are a type of biography in themselves, an accounting of our lives. I take my books very seriously. People know not to ask if they can borrow any of my books.

The number of books a person owns reveals little about their understanding of the power of literacy and books. For too many people who have huge libraries, the whole project is one of social signaling and bourgeois habitus.

One of my most personally important books is an early edition of "The Black Book." This landmark work was edited by Middleton A. Harris, Ernest Smith, Morris Levitt and Roger Furman, with a foreword by Toni Morrison. My mother purchased "The Black Book" for a community college course and wanted to make sure that I read it. I was seven or eight years old at the time.

All these years later is sits prominently on a bookshelf that I walk by many times each day. If there was a fire, I would grab my "Black Book," along with a handful of other prized possessions, as I ran out the door.

My copy of "The Black Book" is old, tattered and yellowing. Several pages are missing. The book has no monetary value. Its power and value cannot be measured in such terms. "The Black Book" reinforced for its readers that we, Black Americans and others of the Black diaspora, have a history and experience as a people that white supremacy, the white gaze and white power in its many forms could not erase.

RELATED: Right's cynical attack on "critical race theory": Old racist poison in a new bottle

Beyond important historical facts, narratives and other information, "The Black Book" (and other work in that tradition and spirit) served as a kind of shield against the many big and small lies of white supremacy and white racism that can diminish and crush the way Black folks (and other people of color) imagine their own possibilities and reality — and this remains true decades after the civil rights movement.

In many ways, America was built on white supremacist lies about Black and brown people. Those lies have not been exorcised; they still have great power and many people believe them today. The social institutions those lies helped create and legitimate still exist. The Jim Crow Republicans and other neofascists are empowered by racist and white supremacist lies.

On this holiday weekend set aside to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Freedom Struggle, Republicans and other "conservatives" will deploy their racist and white supremacist lies (as they have done for decades) to diminish the meaning of Dr. King's struggle and sacrifice

According to their deranged worldview, Dr. King is a Reagan Republican and Christian nationalist, and a neoliberal gangster capitalist who supports deregulation, privatization and gun culture. This alternate reality version of Dr. King also stands against "wokeness" and "Black Lives Matter." His legacy has been "stolen," we are told, by the Democrats and the "Black establishment" as a means to "oppress" the Black community. Moreover, the Democratic Party is a "plantation," and Dr. King's memory and legacy are being used by Democrats, liberals and "Black elites" to keep Black Americans "mentally enslaved" and "not thinking for themselves."

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This white supremacist disinformation campaign is part of a much larger, and in fact global, fascist project meant to convince white Americans that they are the "real" victims of racism and that simultaneously they are losing "their country" — a country where they control every dominant social, political, economic and cultural institution.

Public opinion polls and other research have consistently shown that agreement with such values and beliefs is heavily predictive of support for and allegiance to Donald Trump, the Republican Party and the larger white right.

As expected, the Republican fascists and their allies and agents are using Dr. King's life and legacy as one of the newest weapons in their moral panic over "critical race theory." The true goal of this assault on reality is to make it illegal to teach the real history of American racism and the color line.

The real Martin Luther King Jr. — as opposed to the de-radicalized, deracinated, distorted, whitewashed and commodified figure now used to sell all manner of consumer goods, was a civil rights leader, a hope warrior and a martyr. He was also a democratic socialist. The real Dr. King opposed militarism and nationalism. He stood with the powerless and oppressed against the powerful. He supported affirmative action, reparations for white-on-Black chattel slavery and Jim Crow, a guaranteed minimum income and other substantive material and other attempts to ameliorate America's long history of injustice against Black Americans and other people of color. The real King supported social democracy.

The real Martin Luther King Jr. would without a doubt have supported the scholarly framework known as critical race theory and its conclusions about inequality and America's social and political institutions. The real Martin Luther King Jr. would have stood firm against the forces of Trumpism, American neofascism, white supremacy, and the white right and "conservative" movement more broadly. Leaders of those movements would have found him an implacable enemy.

At the time of his assassination, King was one of the most unpopular major figures in the United States — as he would be today, were he were alive. Many white liberals and "moderates" would view him with mistrust and disdain for speaking too much truth about their complicity with white supremacy and other forms of injustice.

In 1963, Dr. King wrote in his famous "Letter From Birmingham Jail": 

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the White moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice.

This is the second Martin Luther King Jr. holiday since Donald Trump and his Republican fascists attempted a coup on Jan. 6, 2021, with the ultimate goal of terminating America's multiracial democracy

Last year, I wrote the following here at Salon about Dr. King, Jan. 6, and America's imperiled democracy:

The real Dr. King would demand that substantive justice be done and that Donald Trump, his coup plotters, enablers and foot soldiers, and those others who participated in a lethal attack on the Capitol be held accountable. Such an outcome is not vengeance; it is justice.

Dr. King, who was a product of the Black Christian prophetic tradition of resistance and love and social justice, said this: "Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning."

He also said, "He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."

As the crimes of the Age of Trump are investigated and punishments meted out, the American people would be wise to heed Dr. King's wisdom. We have ignored it far too long.

One year later, where are we? The answer is that matters are more dire. America is in a moment of interregnum, with fascism and white supremacy in the ascendant. Republican fascists and their movement are threatening a second civil war and terrorist insurgency. Republicans will likely regain control of Congress after the midterm elections this November, and could well retake the presidency as well in 2024. Donald Trump and his cabal have yet to be punished for their crimes against the Constitution and the rule of law, and to all appearances never will be.

In this moment of democracy crisis, America needs hope warriors and other freedom fighters who are prepared for a long struggle, one in which the pendulum will swing between hope and despair, optimism and nightmares, terror and elation many times over. 

In a 2012 interview, theologian James Cone reflected on what could be learned from Dr. King and Malcolm X about such struggles:

But as long as people have hope, they struggle. If they only have nightmare, if they only have despair, they won't struggle. So, even in Malcolm you got hope, because you wouldn't have him articulating so strongly, so powerfully unless there was hope in the articulation itself. So, while King expresses the hope, he also articulates despair too. King and Malcolm have each other in each other and that's true of all groups who are struggling for justice. You have one group that's going to emphasize the negative side and one that's going to emphasize the positive side, but both have both.  Because it ain't all positive and King knew that — that's why he was fighting. And it ain't all negative, Malcolm knew that, that's why he was talking. Otherwise, he wouldn't be talking to his people if there was not hope, if they, through his discourse, wouldn't be empowered about the situation in which they found themselves in.

With his prophetic wisdom and vision, Dr. King warned us that America could be destroyed by racism, white supremacy and other societal ills. As our democracy weakens even further day by day, his prophecy looks to be coming true in real time.

The arc of the moral universe may indeed be long, but the challenge is this: Do the American people have the will at this time to bend it more fully towards democracy and justice, in what will likely be a decades-long battle against fascism and white supremacy? Or have too many Americans already surrendered, before the battle has even been joined?

Read more on American history and white supremacy:

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Coup Democracy Fascism Jim Crow Jr. Martin Luther King Mlk Day Race Racism Republicans White Supremacy