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A peculiar thing has happened of late to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s become a hero to white conservatives. On second thought, “hero” is too generous a word. Let’s say “useful.”

I noticed this the other day when the Ottawa County Commission in West Michigan passed a resolution that favorably quoted King. They even cited King as the inspiration for the county’s new motto: “Where Freedom Rings,” which replaces the old motto of “Where You Belong.” (Never mind that when King said, “Let freedom ring” in that famous speech, he was quoting “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” by Samuel Francis Smith.)

Ottawa County needed a new motto because, according to its newly seated commissioners, “Where You Belong,” promoted “divisive, Marxist ideology.” If you’re not from West Michigan, you may wonder what in the world is going on in Ottawa County. Or maybe you don’t. After all, words like “freedom” (and “patriot” and “liberty”) are buzzwords in our endless culture war.

I never suspected “Where you belong” could bring such enmity. Having been steeped in the Heidelberg Catechism, I thought belonging was a good thing. Not so. Promoting belonging brings with it dangerous inquiries into who doesn’t belong and why they don’t. That, according to the county commission, is where the Marxist and divisive trouble begins. Somehow, it’s not far from “Where you belong” to teaching white children to hate themselves.

Several moderate Republican county commissioners were ousted by further-right Republicans in the August primary and then confirmed in the November general election. On January 3, in their first meeting after installation, the new commissioners not only changed the county’s motto, they dissolved the county’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; replaced the county’s administrative health officer (more culture war stuff because the serving health officer made the mistake of taking the pandemic seriously); replaced the county’s administrator with a Trump-endorsed failed Congressional candidate who has the dubious distinction of having once said women should not be allowed to vote; and replaced the county’s legal counsel with a conservative firm. None of this was on the stated agenda for the first meeting of the new commission, and Michigan’s attorney general is investigating. I was left thanking God that, although I can throw a stone in my back yard into Ottawa County, I don’t actually live there.

But back to Dr. King. In changing the county’s motto, a resolution was passed that included this paragraph: “WHEREAS, we agree with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that children ‘will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’ We agree with his desire to ‘let freedom ring’ in every city and state across our nation, and with the historical significance of these words to the American people’s struggle for freedom and equality.” (You may read the entire resolution and more about the county commission here.)

It’s hard to imagine Martin Luther King would be in support of having his words used this way.  

I was nine when Dr. King was assassinated in April, 1968. We lived in a white suburb of Cincinnati. Riots broke out in the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati, as they did in several U.S. cities. My most vivid memory is of seeing a shotgun in the corner of our local Gulf station, which Tom, the owner, said was there in case “Any of those ‘N’s’ crawl up out of the city and come for my gas station.” That scared me much more than the riots: the riots were 20 miles away, this was around the corner.

I remember my first boss out of college—when I briefly worked for a bank—complaining about the drive for “Martin Luther ‘N’ Day.” He wasn’t the only one objecting to the idea of making the observance of King’s birthday a federal holiday. President Ronald Reagan said it would be too expensive. Senator Jesse Helms, a staunch segregationist from North Carolina, led the fight against the holiday, saying King’s opposition to the Vietnam War proved he was sympathetic to communism. When asked specifically about those charges, President Reagan equivocated, saying we’d eventually know about King and the communists when his FBI files were opened. In 1983, the vote to establish the holiday was 242-4 in the House Democratic Caucus and 89-77 (with five abstentions) from House Republicans (those were the days when moderate Republicans were not an endangered species). In the Senate, Daniel Moynihan took Jesse Helms’s folder of material against King and dramatically threw it to the ground and the bill passed 78-22. To his credit, Ronald Reagan signed the bill creating the holiday into law on November 2, 1983.

Forty years later, in Ottawa County and beyond, it’s conservative Republicans, the ideological heirs of those who suggested King was a communist and voted against establishing his birthday as a holiday, who are using King’s words for their purposes. How did this happen? The answer involves nuance and complexity; things conservative Republicans aren’t especially noted for.

By reducing King to a few lines from one speech, it’s possible to pit him against today’s race theories. The essence of King, according to conservative voices, can be distilled as the establishment of a color-blind society where inequality does not exist and each individual is judged on his or her own merits.

In fact, Martin Luther King was a radical civil rights leader who not only criticized America’s involvement in Vietnam, but who also criticized capitalism and its income disparities, called out white supremacy, and endlessly and ferociously got under the skin of the white status quo. Why else was he jailed in Birmingham? Why else would J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI have investigated him? Why else would Jesse Helms have hated him?

Now, according to the Ottawa County Commission and others of their ilk (for example, Kevin McCarthy has said that “Critical Race Theory goes against everything Martin Luther King has told us), King is a whitewashed, sanitized figure who offers reassuring words that help whites feel better. If we are color-blind and offer everyone equal opportunities, then racism is a thing in America’s past. (Since racism is a thing of the past, I suppose it doesn’t matter that a handful of Southern states also use the third Monday of January to commemorate the birthday of Robert E. Lee.)

All of this conveniently ignores the majority of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which includes these words: “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note (a reference to the Declaration of Independence’s guarantee of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”

Crowd gathered to hear King in 1963

King didn’t think racism was a thing of the past nor think if African-Americans were just patient racism would magically disappear.  

I was in Detroit the day before I wrote this, and my GPS took me several blocks down one street and then several blocks back up a street one block over, all to get around a brick wall. Getting from point A to point B in that city can be a challenge because of the brick walls, erected to keep the races segregated. Those walls were not built in pre-Civil War days, they were built in the 1940s, within the lifetime of people reading this. Every time I hear the chant, “Build the wall,” I think of Detroit. The same impulse the erected the brick walls in Detroit fueled the drive for a wall at America’s Southern border. Can people honestly believe racism is over?

In the strange world that believes racism is a thing of the past, the worst thing we can do is teach children about it. By teaching children about racism, we teach them to divide people by race. (They wouldn’t learn this otherwise in their homes, where their parents regularly socialize with people of other colors, in their integrated neighborhoods and schools, or in their multi-cultural churches, right?) Worse than that, by teaching children about racism, we make white kids feel bad. According to the Ottawa County Commissioners, “We need to return our nation to our roots which made America exceptional, rather than apologize for them.” What are these roots? The commissioners are clear: the three “C’s” of Constitution, Christianity, and capitalism. (Christian Nationalism, anyone?)

It should be noted the commissioners are all for “equality,” but allergic to “equity.” I don’t blame you if you thought those words were synonyms. According to the commissioners, “Equality is a human right outlined in the Declaration of Independence,” but equity is a socialist value: “Equity promises equal outcomes and is not a human right. Equity ignores the impact of personal effort while dismantling the foundations of our society which made our nation exceptional. Equity jeopardizes liberty.” (Cynical me, who didn’t understand the huge wealth of the scions of West Michigan families was from their personal effort. Forgive me for not seeing how these people pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.)

What a difference omitting two letters from equality and coming up with equity makes. Once again, we’ve waded into nuance and complexity. Those that espouse the so-called socialist value of equity do so because they believe white privilege exists, that systemic racism exists, and that beginning life from different starting points leads to different conclusions. The emphasis in equity is justice, a value which apparently somehow puts liberty at risk. Justice or liberty. Hmm. Which one is a biblical value?

The easiest analogy I can think of is the handicap system in golf. If a golf tournament is based on equality (which professional golf is), whoever has the lowest score wins. If a golf tournament is based on equity (as country club tournaments are), whoever has the lowest score after adjusting for handicaps wins. Less than 1% of the population can compete in a professional golf tournament. 100% can compete in a golf tournament that uses handicaps. The system levels the playing field. But you can see what this means—country club golf tournaments are socialism in action and children must be protected from them!!!

Sound ridiculous? It is. As ridiculous as putting the words of Martin Luther King into the mouths of white conservatives.

A few paragraphs ago I mentioned the three “C’s” of Constitution, Christianity, and capitalism, cited by the Ottawa County Commissioners as the founding roots of the United States. This assertion is also ridiculous. Ridiculous because it simplifies and misreads American history. It forgets Founding Father Thomas Paine called Christianity a fable, and turns deists like Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson into orthodox Christians. It ignores the plain words of the Constitution about freedom of religion and implies the Founders did the opposite and endorsed Christianity. It is ridiculous because it raises the Constitution and capitalism to the level of religion (I believe the biblical word for this is idolatry). It is ridiculous because the great villain Karl Marx wasn’t even born until 40 years after the American Revolution, so the Founders could not have been choosing an economic system in opposition to his. And it is ridiculous because it ignores that the fires of American capitalism were stoked by the slave trade.

Since Ottawa County is 90% white, it’s bad for business and against the wishes of the people to engage in woke things like diversity, equity, and inclusion. Since it is 90% white, it’s a sham to pretend it’s a place where everyone belongs. Since it is 90% white, we can assert that all Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for was for everyone to be judged the same. Wouldn’t he be happy with the progress we’ve made?

And so, Dr. King, the brightest light of the Civil Rights Movement, the descendant of enslaved people, is being appropriated by white conservatives for purposes which, if you peel back all the layers of rhetoric, are ultimately racist. On this day, of all days, it is time to repudiate this, in Ottawa County and beyond.

18 Comments

  • Joan Bouwma says:

    Well said! Thank you for this.

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Thank-you for the courage in writing this. Very powerful, much needed.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Amen, Jeff! We in Ottawa County, especially though not exclusively, needed to read this this morning. Thank you for the courage to say it clearly, truthfully, and boldly.

  • Taylor W Holbrook says:

    Amen! A prophetic word for this day.

  • Ann S says:

    Right on. The Ottawa Cty Commission is a travesty. Unfortunately, it is not alone. Lord, have mercy; bring justice.

  • Alicia Mannes says:

    Powerful! As a resident of Ottowa County, thanks for naming it!

  • Henk Ottens says:

    Jeff, you are an accomplished painter, dipping deep your broad brush in a bucket of paint and creating a monochromatic canvas of impenetrable blue.

  • Karl westerhof says:

    So very good! So very well said! So very needed!

  • Roze Meyer Bruins says:

    Curious, why didn’t you invite one of your Black bloggers to write today’s piece for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? Surely “The Twelve” bloggers (and subscribers) are more diverse than Ottawa County’s “90% white?” At least you could have invited Ottawa County’s new administrator, a Black man, to have reflected on today’s significance. Instead, a white guy interprets racism on this important day. Sigh.

    • George Westra says:

      Why are you judging Jeff by the color of his skin rather than the content of his article? 😉

      Also, Gibbs would have been a terrible choice as he in no way speaks for the Black community, let alone MLK’s legacy (which would be the opposite of Gibbs’ Trumpian views). His views (while legitimately his own) are just the latest example of conservatives choosing to listen to the Black voices that will say what they want to hear (that is, not challenge them or deal with real racism) while ignoring real MLK scholars or the vast majority of the Black community.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Ever grateful, Jeff. Place your truth next to their distortions and well . . .

  • Jan Koopman says:

    Thank you Jeff…. More people of faith in Ottawa County need to come forward to denounce the evil that has seemed to take over the County Commission.

  • Deb Toering says:

    Amen! Thank you for your profound words and reflections on our new Ottawa County Commissioners. There is hope as a new grass roots movement is forming in opposition to these commissioners.

  • Susan says:

    Thank you for this outstanding piece on what has happened in the county I now live in. I have heard the words of the County Commissioners used by many people in the county. I know we need to watch this group carefully as they are deceitful and dishonest. Thank you for words to help in the discussion,

  • Helen P says:

    This is spot on. I’m sad, but not at all surprised by this new flock of commissioners.

    I’m so glad my parents moved us away from GH in ‘75.

  • George Westra says:

    Just in case some people need some more quotes to back up MLK NOT being colorblind:

    From “Why We Can’t Wait” by MLK (1964): “Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.”

    From an interview with Alex Haley in 1965:
    “Interviewer: Do you feel it’s fair to request a multibillion-dollar program of preferential treatment for the Negro, or for any other minority group?

    King: I do indeed. Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved, and robbed of any wages—potential accumulated wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation. It is an economic fact that a program such as I propose would certainly cost far less than any computation of two centuries of unpaid wages plus accumulated interest.”

  • Curt Day says:

    The appropriation of Dr King by American conservatives is not all too surprising. For whether it is out of ideological and national tribalism or out of a corporate narcissism, American conservatives demand that American conservatism be praised. In addition, MLK is an authority figure and American conservatives, though not having a monopoly on this, all too often passionately embrace authoritarianism. But to claim MLK as an authority figure for such conservatives, a great deal of selectivity must be employed in quoting what MLK believed, said, and did.

    But we also need to be accurate regarding MLK’s views toward the real political left. To say that MLK was sympathetic to communism is overstated because the claim is overly simplistic. To illustrate that more nuance is needed in describing MLK’s view of communism, I will quote from King’s ‘Stride Toward Freedom.‘ (see pg 93 and 95 from https://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/ows/seminars/aahistory/Pilgrimage.pdf ):

    Yet, in spite of the fact that my response to communism was and is negative, and I considered it basically evil, there were points at which I found it challenging. The late Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, referred to communism as a Christian heresy. By this he meant that communism had laid hold of certain truths which are essential parts of the Christian view of things, but that it had bound up with them concepts and practices which no Christian could ever accept or profess. Communism challenged the late Archbishop and it should challenge every Christian–as it challenged me–to a growing concern about social justice. With all of its false assumptions and evil methods, communism grew as a protest against the hardships of the underprivileged…

    Each represents a partial truth. Historically capitalism failed to see the truth in collective enterprise and Marxism fails to see the truth in individual enterprise. Nineteenth-century capitalism failed to see that life is social and Marxism failed and still fails to see that life is individual and personal. The Kingdom of God is neither the thesis of individual enterprise nor the antithesis of collective enterprise, but a syntheses which reconciles the truths of both.

    Unfortunately MLK had conflated Marx’s communism with what was practiced in the USSR. But despite that, it is clear that King’s feelings for communism were far more complex than to just say that he was sympathetic to it.

  • Bruce Buursma says:

    Thank you, Jeff, for this marvelous piece!

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