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Washington’s M.L.K. Day Conundrum

MLK memorial statue
Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty
Julia Ioffe
January 19, 2022

If you have any social media presence, you were likely inundated this past weekend with inspirational quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. Or, as one shrewd observer put it, it was a “big day for MLK quotes with weird ellipses in the middle.” It’s a perfect send-up of how the American right has co-opted King as a prophet for its vision of a “color-blind society”—a conservative foil to the modern Black Lives Matter movement. In this retelling, King stood for non-violence as a means of reconciliation, a way of inducing change without making white Americans too uncomfortable. By this same logic, King’s dream that his children would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin is somehow a rebuke of modern efforts to teach children about the darker moments of this country’s history, moments that continue to cast a long shadow today. Teaching about structural racism, in this warped reading of King, is actually a desecration of his legacy.

It’s a clever narrative inversion to serve the G.O.P.’s political goals of the moment. But I’m a history nerd, so let’s revisit the not-so-distant past. During King’s lifetime, most Americans thought the Freedom Riders and King’s March on Washington did more harm than good by polarizing Americans on the subject of race. (Sound familiar?) The modern G.O.P. took on its current shape in part as a reaction to King and the civil rights movement, as historians like Kevin Kruse have rigorously documented. During the 1960s, the period when King rose to national prominence, the Republican Party became a refuge for Dixiecrats who felt that desegregation and integration were being crammed down their throats. The violent opposition to integration, desegregation, and the extension of voting rights to southern Blacks led directly to King’s assassination. And as much as the G.O.P. now likes to paint King as a unifying figure, in contrast to the allegedly divisive tactics of B.L.M., King was not a unifying figure in his time. The F.B.I. wiretapped and monitored him because they were afraid of him. Millions of white people hated him and everything he stood for.