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Martin Luther King, race-baiter?

Conservatives attacked MLK 50 years ago just as they're attacking today's black leaders.

Last Modified: 09 Aug 2013 12:35
Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
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Many things have changed since MLK's death, but conservative hostility to African-Americans speaking frankly and openly about racial injustice remains [AFP]

Response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman has been noticeably split along both racial and ideological lines in the USA, with blacks and liberals seeing the verdict in terms of continued racial injustice, while a majority of whites and supermajority of conservatives support the verdict and think that the US justice system works just fine in terms of treating blacks and other minorities equally. 

The divide is well illustrated in a Washington Post/ABC poll which found approval of the decision evenly split among all adults, but sharply polarised by race, with whites supporting it by 2-1, while African Americans disapproved overwhelmingly. Almost as polarised, conservative Republicans supported the verdict by a 46-point margin, while liberal Democrats disapproved by 48 points.

More broadly, when asked if blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment in criminal justice system, whites said yes by a 54-50 margin, while blacks said no by 86-8. Again, conservative Republicans said yes by 68-28, while liberal Democrats said no by 82-16.

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinions," Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "But they are not entitled to their own facts." And the cold hard facts say that conservative Republicans are just plain wrong. Blacks are punished far more often and more harshly than their white counterparts, going to jail at almost 4 times the rate of whites for marijuana possession, for example, despite almost identical levels of marijuana use. A variety of different reports show similar disparities. Yet conservative media figures are doubling down on demonising anyone who even dares to talk about race. 

Fox News

This is particularly true at Fox News, where the result is a veritable frenzy of animosity. Within days of the Zimmerman verdict, Media Matters had collected statements from a broad range of Fox News figures, including:

  • Fox News host Bill O'Reilly accusing the NAACP being a part of "the grievance industry",
  • Fox & Friends , co-host Steve Doocy claiming that "race hustlers" were "drumming up some tension across the country",
  • Fox News contributor Laura Ingraham, on Fox and Friends, suggesting that the Justice Department is "humouring" "race hucksters"
  • The Five , co-host Eric Bolling claiming that "the only thing making Al Sharpton relevant … is being an outrageous race-baiter", and saying, "The biggest racist in this whole world right now: Al Sharpton, absolutely... and maybe second would Eric Holder for applying 'stand your ground' to the Zimmerman case"
  • Fox News host Tucker Carlson saying "People like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton do not deserve to be called civil rights leaders. They are not. They are hustlers and pimps who make a living off inflaming racial tensions."

For some, that was only the beginning, as they've continued similar invective for over two weeks now. Listening to this virulent outpouring of hatred, one can't help but think that if Martin Luther King were alive today, these same conservative hatemongers would be calling him a "race-hustler" a demagouge and a divider, too. This is not a mere matter of speculation. It's precisely what conservatives back then did when King was still alive. 

For decades now, conservatives have tried to reinvent King as one of their own—or at the very least pretend that they agree with him. Just because he once spoke of "character", he must be a conservative, right? Unfortunately for conservatives, King said a great deal more about character than they care to remember.

One of his most famous speeches - unknown, apparently, to most conservatives - was "The Drum Major Instinct", In it, King spoke about personal responsibility with a much more lofty view than conservatives ever conceive of: that we are each responsible not just for ourselves, but for each other, and for our collective redemption from the sins of our past that stain us still. It was not about denying ego, but about putting ego into the service of others. 

"Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter." That's what King said about how he wanted to be remembered, one month before he was assassinated. That's the kind of character that King strove for in his own life, right up to the very end. 

And then there is his most famous non-speech, his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." This letter, and the occasion of its writing are the most direct refutation of the rightwing media haters of today, and their relentless attacks on the civil rights leaders of today.

MLK: Then and now

Many things were different between Birmingham in 1963 and the aftermath of George Zimmerman's acquittal fifty years later, but one thing that was virtually identical was the conservative hostility to African-Americans speaking frankly and openly about racial injustice, through leaders and spokespeople of their own choosing. Anyone doing so would be harshly attacked as a divider. This is precisely what happened to Martin Luther King, Jr., after he came to Birmingham in support of long-running local organizing efforts to integrating Birmingham's major downtown businesses. 

While local black leadership had long been entirely ignored when not being attacked, once the demonstrations supported by King gained substantial momentum, part of the white response was to try to split the black community by peeling off "responsible" leaders to cut meaningless, toothless side-deals with. This is the context in which a group of eight prominent white clergymen wrote a so-called "Call for Unity", which was published April 12, 1963, and smuggled into Birmingham Jail, where Martin Luther King penned his response. 

Obama speaks on Zimmerman verdict

To their charge of being an outsider, King first noted his organisational ties, and the call that had gone out to him, and then stated, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," going on to draw parallels to the Hebrew prophets and the Apostle Paul," saying, "so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town."

To their complaints about conflict and divisiveness, he began with a sharp rebuke: "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." He went on to say "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." 

After that, King first introduced, and then explained the four basic steps in a nonviolent campaign, "collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action". Expanding "why direct action?" King first told them that the negotiations they called for instead were "the very purpose of direct action." Then he elaborated: "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatise the issue that it can no longer be ignored."

This is precisely the same thing that Al Sharpton, the NAACP, the Dream Defenders in Tallahassee and countless others across the country are doing today - seeking to "foster such a tension" that America is "forced to confront the issue," to dramatise it so that "it can no longer be ignored".

Everyone now likes to think that they would have been right there with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the height of the civil rights struggle. It's an easy illusion to cultivate if you simply choose to listen to him selectively, if you ignore the vast majority of what he had to say, particularly when he was most bitterly attacked. 

Much more important, much more valuable, really, is to ask yourself, what would King be doing today to get people just as angry with him as they were back them - and, only after you have asked and answered that - what would he be aiming for, to ultimately bring them together?

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he's worked since 2002. He's also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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