Every year, on the third Monday in January, people play their hand at the same game. “What would Martin Luther King Jr. think?” becomes an unwritten essay prompt for op-eds, a topic of speeches and sermons, a call to action, and a societal rebuke. In this annual pageant, there are few who would ever mark themselves as living in opposition to the legacy of King, even as they work to dismantle it.
It was only natural that Vice President Mike Pence would quote King in defense of President Donald Trump’s decision to continue the ongoing government shutdown until he receives full funding for a border wall. “One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was: ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy’,” Pence said on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, citing King’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. “You think of how he changed America. He inspired us to change through the legislative process, to become a more perfect union. That’s exactly what President Trump is calling on Congress to do: Come to the table in the spirit of good faith.”
Pence, of course, is doing only what the current version of the holiday demands. Across the ideological spectrum, politicians must seek to fit themselves under the aegis of the Kingian legacy. That means a contingent of Americans who surely oppose the positions King held in his life are compelled to contort him into something friendly. Columns must wield King to attack everything from “identity politics” to the very act of “politicizing” King’s life itself. Democratic presidential hopefuls must employ King in order to make the case that each of their disparate platforms is the natural heir to his legacy. The sound bites evoking King are stretched like skin over the bones of existing debate. The figure celebrated looks nothing like the leader who lived—and who was killed—but like a granite-chiseled modern founding father, a collection of axioms by which our age is defined.
But beyond those axioms, there are core truths to who King was, what he believed, and what he endorsed. He was not an unknowable sphinx who spoke only in maxims. The first truth is that King was a person who began his career as a very young man, and who changed, learned, and grew over the course of a challenging and often controversial career. He was once a boy known in his family as “ML,” a raconteur who fancied himself a ladies’ man. He was only 26 when he was recruited to lead the Montgomery bus boycott, and while still in his 20s he ran an advice column for Ebony magazine. The gulf between that man and the weary 39-year-old who in his 1968 “Drum Major Instinct” speech lamented that “we’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world” is an immense one.
The second truth about King springs naturally from the first: What he believed over the course of his life changed, and was affected by the course of the civil-rights movement and by his own development and experiences as a leader. Kingian nonviolence, the philosophy and strategy that is most widely associated with him, changed over the course of his life from a tactical activism to an all-encompassing worldview that brought him to decry poverty in India, housing discrimination in Chicago, and the Vietnam War. King’s crucible in the spotlight at the forefront of the movement even led him to directly challenge and critique former versions of himself, and those who sought to preserve him in amber. In 1967, for example, he defended his prescription of civil disobedience while also allowing that “there is probably no way, even eliminating violence, for Negroes to obtain their rights without upsetting the equanimity of white folks.”
That second truth makes some of the annual celebration of King an exercise in absurdity. Most modern memorials take stock of King around the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963—likely his popular zenith in the eyes of white onlookers—and few bother to look beyond that speech or the contents of a few passages. Even fewer peer into his early or late years. They miss the fraught political landscape of his death, the “white backlash” that he warned about, and the ways in which his legacy was whitewashed from the very beginning as a way to blunt his more pointed economic and societal critiques.
The third point follows. There were several policies that King not only advocated for, but that he found were necessary to reverse the evils of white supremacy. He outlined these policies specifically, and often in full detail. He sought race-specific measures such as affirmative action, outlined support for universal jobs and housing guarantees in his “Freedom Budget,” and in speeches announced his support for universal health care. And while he did not necessarily advance a comprehensive view on immigration, he evinced a clear support for global citizenship and for America’s mandate to shoulder the burden of global antipoverty programs. In a 1964 speech in East Berlin, King made that position clear: “For here on either side of the wall are God’s children, and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact. Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.”
The way the country memorializes King today, it might be seen as a matter of partisan bias or controversy to point out that Pence, the White House, and supporters of the Trump administration stand firmly against the policies that King wanted. But this is not really a matter of opinion. The administration has eschewed any attempts at universal health care, sought to end affirmative action as it is implemented, and has looked to walk back existing measures to ensure affordable housing; the president’s history as a public figure is tied to alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act for which King advocated; and Trump has referred to developing nations as “shithole countries.” Not only does the administration’s policy agenda come completely into conflict with King’s, it is rooted firmly in a conservative movement that built itself in opposition to King.
That Pence and other standard-bearers within this movement can regularly lean on King’s legacy is a consequence of how the civil-rights leader has been canonized. When President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law, in 1983—reversing his own objections to the holiday, and earlier ones to King himself—he signaled that America had accepted King in its pantheon of similarly revered leaders, people such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. But in order to do so, King’s legacy had to be repackaged in a way similar to theirs. While in both of those cases, the truths about American slavery are conveniently stripped away, the popular history of King must erase these three truths about him. In that historical amnesia, the current political status quo operates, doomed to rediscover King only once a year.