Commentary: Is MLK a safe icon or radical organizer?

The Miami HeraldJanuary 16, 2012 

It’s a case of mistaken identity.

At last count, 893 streets in the United States (and another two in Puerto Rico) have been renamed for Martin Luther King Jr.

Several hundred more clinics, community centers, hospitals and parks across the country bear his name. No other modern American figure’s name has been attached to so many civic places, said Derek Alderman, a professor of geography at the University of East Carolina who studies such social phenomena.

And Monday, on the 36st national King Day observance, parades will wind along various Martin Luther King boulevards in many of those cities. Vendors along the way will sell T-shirts and other memorabilia emblazoned with his image.

Except they commemorate the wrong Martin Luther King.

The icon of the national holiday, the Disneyfied hero celebrated by school kids, a replica of the original made into someone palatable to business and civic leaders across the political spectrum, hardly resembles the righteous rabble-rouser who inflicted so much discomfort on the American establishment.

It will be the what Professor Alderman calls the “sanitized version” of Martin Luther King who’ll be referenced by politicians as they’re hauled through the parade routes, perched on the back of convertibles, waving like homecoming queens. They’ll limit their remembrances to the elegant speaker and civil rights champion who led the fight against the blatant wrongs of Jim Crow. Now that segregation has been outlawed and consigned to history books, politicians have grown comfy with the Martin Luther King who marched on Selma.

But modern powerbrokers, in their prosaic tributes, tend to forget the Martin Luther King Jr. whose causes would have a stinging resonance in 2012 America.

After a year when some political leaders have tried to gut public worker unions, they might find it a bit inconvenient to recall the Martin Luther King who was gunned down in Memphis in 1968 during a campaign to organize the city garbage workers.

In a time when the American middleclass has noticed that the one percent was scarfing up an ever greater portion of the nation’s wealth, while its own relative buying power has been frozen since 1970, King’s demands for economic justice might seem just a bit too contemporary. (Someone might also notice that his movement’s Resurrection City, the shanty town protest against economic disparity, erected a month after his death, might as well been called Occupy Washington.)

Amid so much apprehension over the lack of judicial restraint in the use of roving wiretaps and other surveillance authorized in the Patriot Act extension signed by President Obama, our political leaders would rather forget about the Martin Luther King whose home, office and hotel rooms were bugged, for years, by the FBI. (J. Edgar Hoover explained the “unshackled” surveillance of King as a way to track, “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.”)

After a decade of war in Afghanistan, with that long, bloody, pointless diversion into Iraq, it’s doubtful that the we’ll hear our President or congressional leaders from either party quote from King’s anti-war speech in 1967, when he called the United States, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Certainly, the politicians behind the coordinated campaign in 14 states (including Florida) to enact new voting restrictions, would be vexed by the Martin Luther King who fought to bring voting rights to the disenfranchised. According to the a study conducted by the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice State governments, some 5 million voters will be affected. “In the first three quarters of 2011, state governments across the country have suddenly enacted an array of new laws and policies making it harder to vote. Some states require voters to show government-issued photo identification, often of a type that as many as one in ten voters do not have.” (Under the Texas version, licenses to carry concealed handguns would be an acceptable form of identification to vote, but not student ID cards.)

Other states have cut back on early voting. In Florida, Gov. Scott signed a bill in May that limited early voting days from 15 to eight days. The new Florida law also put draconian restrictions on volunteer voter registration groups and eliminated a 40-year-old policy that allowed voters to update their legal addresses when they voted.

The politicians who engineered the new laws claimed that they were needed to stop voter fraud, particularly to stop illegal immigrants from turning elections, though they’ve come up with damn few examples. Yet, most instances of voter fraud (witness Miami-Dade’s corrupted elections) have come by the willy-nilly distribution of absentee ballots – a problem unaddressed by the new laws.

The Brennan study found that the effect of the new laws will be to suppress the vote disproportionately among the poor and minority voters. This new wave of voter suppression would have the real Martin Luther King raising hell.

Probably some town somewhere will mark the holiday Monday by picking a nondescript street on the shabby side of the tracks and christen another Martin Luther King Boulevard. But it won’t be the radical organizer the city fathers will be memorializing.

Professor Alderman has noticed that streets renamed for King, (like the roads formerly known as NW 62 Street in Liberty City or a non-descript 12-block stretch of Southwest Eighth Avenue in Hallandale Beach) are often confined to the black zip codes, “just reaffirming segregation.” He noted, “The man who fought against segregation is remembered on a very segregated street.”

And even that King, “the radical challenger who pushed for meaningful social change,” he said, “has been watered down and sanitized.”

That’s the icon, the nice, safe museum relic, that the establishment will prefers to remember on Martin Luther King Day. Not the extremist whose cause might rally the disenfranchised to fight for their votes or the war weary to fight for peace or the 99 percenters to demand economic justice. They’d just as soon forget the unapologetic radical who wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail, “the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

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