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To the Mountaintop and Back - Squandering the Legacy


Martin Luther King, Jr. was the greatest American of the last half of the 20th century. He was a leader with vision, virtue, and a commitment to justice. He saw a society that needed to go further in fulfilling the dream laid out in its founding documents and ideals. In this, he was as patriotic a citizen as our nation has ever produced.

As for the 20th century as a whole, I will cede the first half of it to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Without his leadership, the US might have neither withstood the economic and social threat posed by the great depression nor marshalled the epic effort to defeat fascism.

FDR and MLK, the two greatest leaders of the last century, both had their faults. Roosevelt had a touch of vanity and was cold to his wife and family. He and his State Department shamefully neglected the plight of European Jews during the Holocaust.

King wrestled with personal doubts and personal indiscretions. Near the end of his life, he was pessimistic about the prospects for his movement. Yet he did not run from his flaws and was able to acknowledge them.

When great leaders push forward with new ideas, they need stewards of their movement to carry the momentum after they are gone. In the interest of his legacy, FDR was fortunate that his programs were enacted through legislation and that subsequent presidents, such as LBJ, enhanced the reach of the American safety net. However, there remains an entrenched class that seeks to reverse the momentum from the New Deal and its progeny; this lives today through the efforts of the Koch Brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council, Tea Party activists, right wing politicians, and the current president and his cabinet.

Martin Luther King left us with a gift; he raised American consciousness about race relations and poverty. But in the years since his death, we have sadly squandered many aspects of this inheritance. Politicians from George Wallace and Richard Nixon, to Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms, have sought to divide Americans by exploiting differences in race, ethnicity, culture, geography, and education. This has led to the “red” and “blue” America that shows up so clearly on many political maps.

Now we are at a point where a president can openly court racists both in his administration and externally. White supremacists feel ascendant. Immigrants, transgender individuals, people of color, and others feel more vulnerable than before.

This is only a symptom. In the fifty years since King’s brutal death, the systematic features that make all this possible have become more deeply rooted. The military industrial complex is as strong as it was when Dwight Eisenhower warned us about it at the end of his presidency. Our country has been involved in foreign wars for the last 17 years and continues to sell billions of dollars worth of weapons to nations around the world. The structure of law enforcement, justice, and incarceration serves to keep an overwhelming number of Black men in jail and make them feel unsafe in their communities. The educational system remains segregated and bifurcated, with enviable education opportunities in suburban districts and a few elite urban schools, while resources and enrichment in poor neighborhoods are relatively scarce. Discriminatory housing policies established through official policy in the 20th century continue to impact life in most American cities and surrounding areas.

This system and years in which politicians have exploited small fissures in American society play no small role in explaining how we have ended up with a presidential administration that is working so actively against our country’s long term interest. It explains why a significant number of voters identify with this president and why members of his party are afraid to call out his basest statements and decisions. It is, again, the red vs. blue divide, without people recognizing that they have more in common than they think. It is in the interests of certain folks in power to keep them unaware of these commonalities.

At the same time, there is a strong materialistic streak in our society. With our commercial goods, gadgets, and entertainment options, we are too complacent to fight back very hard against injustices. (Hopefully, the Parkland students might help reverse this trend a bit.)

Martin Luther King saw all this, and the dominance of this entrenched system was one reason for his despair. In the last years of his life, he was pivoting from a fight against racism to a larger war on poverty and the injustices of the Vietnam War. Were he alive today, he would no doubt be actively working for Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, environmental protection, the Me Too movement, and the battle against income inequality.

On his birthday, and on the anniversary of his death, Martin Luther King always draws a number of tributes. Even the current president managed out a few kind words today, on this 50th anniversary of the King assassination, a fact that drew no small amount of eyerolls on the internet. But after the celebrations end, we all go back to our place in the system.

An assassin’s bullet killed Martin Luther King, and we are all the worse for it. But his legacy, and the greater cause of justice, have been killed by 50 years of oppression and indifference.

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