MLKWe never got MLK Day off at my school, unless it accidentally coincided with the semester-ending records day. This may have happened a few times, but more often than not I and all the other kids sat in school that day. Instead we got off the first day of deer hunting season. Discussing this once, a woman told me very bluntly that deer hunting just meant more to our culture.

She had the right of it. In my lily-white town, having a few and going off in the woods with your gun to freeze various body parts in hopes of killing a deer for meat you didn’t need and would probably give away mattered more. Lily-white towns have that privilege. I never noticed it until high school when teachers started pointing out that other districts got MLK Day off.

Decades after his assassination, popular memory has turned King into a bland secular saint. Pretty good for a guy who died as one of the most hated men in America. Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, a history of the white backlash that transformed American politics over the years between Johnson’s 1964 landside and Nixon’s 1972 landslide, sums it up:

For over a decade now [in 1968], Martin Luther King had faced the risk of violent death every day of his life. The threats had now become so serious that the plane that bore him on his next trip to Memphis, a seething city rotting beneath fifty days of uncollected garbage, had to be guarded overnight. The takeoff had to be delayed an extra hour nonetheless, for one more search of the baggage compartment. More people bore a murderous hatred toward him than toward any other single American  After all, hadn’t the governor of Tennessee just said he was “training three thousand people to start riots”? But this was the same man, simultaneously, toward whom more Americans bore such a love that they’d be willing to lay down their lives for him. Here was a symbol of how divided the nation had become.

King lived with that. The threats, he knew too well, amounted to more than hot air. In 1958, a man nearly stabbed him to death. Just getting up every day to that fear and not running away from it is a kind of heroism, much the same kind that millions of black people had getting up every day to the realities of slavery and then Jim Crow. I suppose one gets used to it in a way, but the weight of it never really vanishes.

Reagan celebrating his election as California's governor in 1966

Reagan celebrating his election as California’s governor in 1966

I don’t want to remember the secular saint of all Americans today. That lie comforts us. I want to remember instead that a substantial portion of American leaders virtually cheered the assassination. Taking my quotes again from Nixonland, Ronald Reagan called the killing

a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.

They chose to break the laws of Jim Crow and in so doing brought about a kind of righteous retribution. Reagan does not quite come out and applaud, but does not shy from saying that King and by extension the rest of the movement had it coming.

South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, then far more than a doddering, embalmed Senator that somehow still showed up every Congress, told his constituents

We are now witnessing the whirlwind sowed years ago when some preachers and teachers began telling people that each man could be his own judge in his own case.

Georgia governor Lester Maddox went a step further, calling King “an enemy of our country” and fortified himself in his office behind 160 state troopers, threatening to raise the capitol’s flags from half-mast during King’s funeral.

Perlstein describes the Chicago Tribune’s start at whitewashing

in an editorial the morning of the funeral, [it] refused to acknowledge the existence of any racial impasse at all. “The Murder of Dr. King was a crime and the sin of an individual,” it said. “The man who committed the act must come to terms with his maker.” The “rest of us” were “not contributory to this particular crime.”

One might think James Earl Ray a lone nut. I cannot deny that he pulled the trigger, but like John Wilkes Booth, Ray did not appear ex nihilo. They came from that half of America that so opposed the policies of their targets as to wish them dead. The only daylight between Booth and Jefferson Davis amounted to the six hundred thousand lives Davis spent against the one Booth spent. Both men sought essentially the same goals.

The internet has no shortage of quotations from the speech about King’s dream. I offer, not in its place but in addition to it, the Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.


I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

That King deserves a place in our memory, not the bland, inoffensive man that we have carefully constructed to ask nothing of us but a sort of empty reverence. We should remember the King that demands things of us, that sees a more just world and asks why we drag our feet getting there. That King knows people stand in the way and will always stand in the way, so we will always have conflict. Those fights are worth having, not for King’s sake as he’s beyond our help, but for our own and for generations yet to come.


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