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How the Conservative King Was Created

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Today is our annual reminder that the conservative cooptation of Martin Luther King continues in its grotesque march forward away from the truth into a fascist candyland of “colorblindness” to serve the purposes of white supremacy. How did this begin? I am always skeptical of monocausal explanations, but its pretty clear that Grandpa Caligula played a pretty big role. Reagan of course hated King, rode white supremacy into the White House, and then resisted creating the MLK holiday with support from his good friend Jesse Helms. Why did he change his mind and sign the bill? Pure politics and realizing that he could message King into meaninglessness.

However, in a dramatically about-face, Reagan capitulated in the final months of 1983. The month following his news conference—and fifteen years after Michigan congressman John Conyers first introduced legislation for the King observance—Reagan sat on the White House lawn and signed a bill establishing a federal holiday for a man he had spent the previous two decades opposing, whilst several hundred attendees sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Yet even after he publicly changed his position, Reagan wrote a letter of apology to Meldrim Thomson, Jr., the Republican governor of New Hampshire, who had begged the president not to support the holiday. His new position, Reagan explained in the letter, was based “on an image [of King], not reality.” Reagan’s support for the federal King holiday, in other words, had nothing to do with his personal views of the civil rights leader. Instead the holiday provided Reagan with political pretext to silence the mounting criticism of his positions on civil rights. By 1983 Reagan faced an onslaught of criticism from groups such as the NAACP and the Urban League for his aggressive assaults on affirmative action and court-ordered busing. With a reelection bid on the horizon, he began to make more concerted efforts to pacify his critics and soften public opinion over his open hostility to civil rights. The King holiday was the primary component of this effort.

Reagan’s pivot on the King holiday provided a two-pronged benefit. On the one hand it would pacify critics of his positions on civil rights, but on the other it enabled Reagan to position himself as the inheritor of King’s colorblind “dream”—a society in which “all men are created equal” and should be judged “not . . . by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”—in order to advance the anti-black crusade he had waged since the 1960s, now under the alluring mantle of colorblindness.

The notion of a “colorblind” approach to U.S. law originated in 1896, when Justice John Marshall Harlan argued in his dissent to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision—which established the legal precedent for racial segregation—that “separate but equal” was unconstitutional because “our Constitution in color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Nearly sixty years later, Justice Harlan was vindicated when the Warren Court invalidated Plessy in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Yet Harlan and Reagan understood colorblindness in profoundly different ways. For Harlan, colorblind law safeguarded non-whites from the institutionalization of white supremacy in state and local governments under Jim Crow. For Reagan, who opposed both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, colorblindness offered an effective ideology through which to roll back the victories of the civil rights movement.

Reagan’s efforts to align himself as the inheritor of King’s colorblind “Dream” picked up considerably during his second term in the White House. Reagan’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, William Bradford Reynolds, began defending the president’s opposition to civil rights programs by insisting that Reagan’s actions were informed by King’s colorblind philosophy. Throughout his second term, Reagan would frequently turn to the colorblind rhetoric, and only the colorblind rhetoric, of the civil rights movement to justify his continued assault on civil rights as a realization of King’s dream.

The most revealing example of Reagan’s second-term King strategy occurred on January 17, 1986. Three days before the inaugural Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, Coretta Scott King unveiled a three-foot solid bronze bust of her slain husband in the Capitol rotunda (later moved to Statuary Hall). After the ceremony Reagan met with King and other civil rights leaders and urged them to “never, never abandon the dream” of a colorblind United States. Reagan’s rendering of King begins and ends on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is a King who said little more than a single sentence: “I have a dream that my four little 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.” Absent entirely from Reagan’s representations of King are his critiques of capitalism, the war in Vietnam, nuclear weapons, or white supremacy.

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