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A Year of Remembering Martin Luther King

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The cover of the forthcoming issue of The New Yorker is pretty great, although it would’ve been nice for artist Mark Ulriksen to include black women like the Kennesaw State cheerleaders whose kneeling ultimately led to the resignation of that university’s wholly unqualified president.

Nevertheless, imagery like this is important. This April 4 will mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, which means that in 2018 we will probably see even more frequent mendacious arguments from conservatives about King and what he’d think of modern America than we do in any other given year.

In his award-winning book Blood Done Sign My Name, historian Tim Tyson writes that, “In the years since his murder, we have transformed King into a kind of innocuous black Santa Claus, genial and vacant, a benign vessel that can be filled with whatever generic good wishes the occasion dictates. Politicians who oppose everything King worked for now jostle their way onto podiums to honor his memory. Many of them quote Dr. King out of context as they denounce ‘affirmative action,’ despite the fact that King repeatedly, publicly, and passionately supported that principle….[O]ur memories about what actually happened in the civil rights era are so faulty that Dr. King’s enemies can safely use his words to thwart his goals.”

Tyson’s book came out years before Black Lives Matter, and the conservative lust to use King’s legacy in precisely the way that Tyson describes has only been amplified in recent years. O’Reilly does it. Huckabee too. Newspaper columnists, etc.

The idea that King would oppose this generation’s most prominent struggle for racial justice is absurd, of course, but I appreciate Ulriksen making the point explicitly that Kaep and Michael Bennett and the rest of those who kneel and march in service of justice today are firmly in keeping with King’s legacy. In his time, King was in many ways an American radical. He wasn’t murdered for being a moderate.

I’ll have more to say about this periodically as the year goes on, including doing some posting from Memphis when I go there in April for the 50th anniversary of the assassination. But it is important to remember that the public memory of freedom fighters like King is slippery, exploitable, and in constant need of vigilant defense.

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