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.”
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.