The Journal Gazette
Monday, January 17, 2022 1:00 am


Inaccurate appropriation latest dishonor of King legacy


On the last day of March 2018, I toured the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis with my child, Mark, my brother, John, and his two sons, Everett and Peter.

We saw depictions of unarmed students who risked physical harm to protest the un-American activities of segregationists. You can only describe it as bravery for them to face death armed only with faith in the cause and backed by the Constitution.

Yet, the most overwhelming moment was entering the room at the Lorraine Hotel where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was staying when he was murdered. We slowly, quietly walked through the small room and past the balcony, where he was shot. I teared up. I couldn't help but hear Bono singing the lyric from the U2 song “In the Name of Love”: “Free at last, they took your life/they could not take your pride.”

It was a powerful moment that I am eternally grateful to share with my family, particularly Mark, a biracial child for whom King and John Lewis are ideological heroes.

No, they couldn't take King's pride, but apparently, some people have no problem co-opting it. It's not a new phenomenon. I've seen this happen for decades. The latest misuse of King's words, though, feels an order of magnitude worse.

As much pride, love and gratitude as I felt that day in Memphis, I felt so much disgust reading that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis perversely used King's language to promote a bill that would keep teachers from teaching anti-racism in schools. (Indiana is currently pushing through similar legislation in the state House.)

“You think about what MLK stood for. He said he didn't want people judged on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character,” DeSantis said just weeks ago to a rally-style crowd in Wildwood, Florida. “You listen to some of these people nowadays, they don't talk about that.”

Beyond the fact that now talking about racism is seen as a racist act, DeSantis and some others on the conservative side of the political spectrum continue a tradition of finding common cause with King's words when it's suitable.

Here's my wish for them on this day marking King's birth: Stop using the man's words. You truly don't get the man, or the people who fought for what should be a birthright: full citizenship.

As cities around the country wrestled with protests during the late spring and summer of 2020, did DeSantis and others remember what King said about the riots in the 1960s?

“The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison.”

You listen to some of these politicians now, and they don't talk about that. In fact, given the wording of Indiana's anti-racism bill, this would be considered anathema to the American ideal that no group has been oppressed.

Looking at qualitative and quantitative data, King's language, sadly, is still applicable. There are still significant gaps in infant mortality, education, income and life expectancy between African Americans and our Caucasian ... oops, I was going to say neighbors, but we're still largely segregated.

In 1904, the African American sociologist and philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that the 20th century's problem for America would be grappling with racism. King knew that and with too many other figures to mention here, fought to push us toward a dream of equality and equity.

Now, in 2022, we're still grappling with racism, as if an organism finds ways to burrow into the minds of people generation after generation. Today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is ramping up efforts to deal with internal terrorism threats, mostly from white nationalists. A bit late, when you consider that the Proud Boys are mainstream.

We are 93 years from King's birth, and53 years since one man took King's life. They couldn't take his pride, but we can't say we're living up to his legacy. I hope Mark, Peter and Everett live to see King's dreams realized.

Fred McKissack is editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette.

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