Washington, D.C. is gearing up for events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I will be among thousands of Americans gathering on the national mall this weekend to remember those marchers and to rededicate ourselves to their demand that the country make good on its promises of equality and opportunity for all.
The fact that politicians from across the political spectrum want to associate themselves with King is a big change. Fifty years ago, he was reviled as a Communist sympathizer trying to undermine what some said was God’s design that the races live separately. March organizer Bayard Rustin was denounced by segregationist Strom Thurmond on the floor of the Senate for being a communist, draft-dodger, and homosexual. This year, Rustin will be posthumously awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
So it is a reflection of social progress that so many conservative Republican lawmakers and right-wing leaders try to wrap themselves in the moral authority of the civil rights movement. But it’s also a reflection of cynical political posturing.
Right-wing leaders are fond of rhetorically embracing King’s dream for an America in which children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Unfortunately, they often use the quote to justify their opposition to any policies that are designed to address the ongoing effects of racial discrimination.
Right-wing politicians shouldn’t be allowed to get away with pretending to share King’s moral high ground simply because legally mandated segregation is now unthinkable in America. There was so much more to King’s – and the movement’s – vision.
King was an advocate for government intervention in the economy to address poverty and economic inequality. He was a supporter of Planned Parenthood and women’s right to choose.
He endorsed the 1960s Supreme Court decisions on church-state separation that Religious Right leaders denounce as attacks on faith and freedom. One of his most valued advisors, Bayard Rustin, was an openly gay man at a time when it was far more personally and politically dangerous to be so.
How many Republican leaders today will embrace that Martin Luther King?
It is true that a strong majority of congressional Republicans voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. It is true that many of our civil rights advances were made with bipartisan support. But today many Republican leaders at the state level are pushing unfair voting laws that could keep millions of people away from the polls. And many not only cheered the Supreme Court’s recent decision gutting the Voting Rights Act but moved immediately to put new voting restrictions in place.
Today’s Republican leaders are also captive to the anti-government ideology fomented by the Tea Party and its right-wing backers. Let’s remember that the official name of the event we are commemorating is the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Among the marchers’ demands were a higher minimum wage and a “massive federal program” to provide unemployed people with decent paying jobs. Sounds like socialism!
Today’s right-wing leaders say it’s wrong to even pay attention to economic inequality. To Rick Santorum, just using the term “middle class” is Marxist.
We must not allow this historic anniversary to become a moment that perpetuates an ersatz, sanitized, co-opted version of King and the movement he led. Let’s instead reclaim King’s broadly progressive vision – for ourselves and for the history books.