Martin Luther King Jr. Day came early for some American politicians. President Joe Biden invoked Dr. King’s legacy during his speech in Atlanta six days before the holiday in which he advocated for passage of two bills that he and other Democrats say will ensure the right to vote. But as he had done days earlier on the Jan. 6 anniversary of the U.S. Capitol riot, Biden wasn’t content to laud King’s heroism or to make the argument for the basic principle that every citizen should have the right to vote.
Instead, employing his characteristic love of hyperbole and hysterical overstatement, Biden linked the two bills to King’s efforts to end segregation and to secure the right for African-Americans to vote, which racist “Jim Crow” laws made impossible in the century after the Civil War in much of the South.
This is pernicious nonsense. The two bills are, in fact, efforts to federalize elections and erase safeguards for the integrity of the vote erected by many states over the years, including many blue ones, for what Democrats believe will be to their advantage. Biden claims that banning measures like requirements to show a photo ID when voting, which is supported by 80 percent of the American public including African-Americans and other minorities, is a necessary corollary to King’s work. The notion that blacks are not as capable of obtaining the identification necessary to perform just about any transaction or to travel as other people contradicts King’s belief that all Americans are “children of God” and equal in the eyes of their Creator.
That Biden claimed that those who oppose his legislative agenda or who believe that the Senate should remain a constitutional check on the will of narrow majorities are also advocates of “Jim Crow”—a vile slander that he has repeated more than once—was more evidence of how he has attempted to hijack King’s legacy for purposes that have little to do with the reasons why King is still revered and his birthday has become a holiday commemorating the fight for civil rights.
Certain Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, have been sounding the same notes this week, in which they bandy about King’s name in order to justify a supposedly non-partisan group whose brief is to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, behaving as a loyal auxiliary of the Democratic Party.
The point about this is not just the tawdry behavior of partisans, including those like the ADL, who are pretending to be something that they are not. Rather, it’s the way King’s name is invoked to support the notion that contemporary political battles are somehow an extension of the life and death struggle against segregation that ended more than a half-century ago.
To note this fact is not to deny that racism still exists or that Americans can merely complacently regard MLK Day as a day for celebrating our past rather than challenging ourselves to do better. That many people and groups use the federal holiday as a day to do good deeds that help the poor or promote better relations between groups is commendable.
But the claim that the America of 2022 is anything like the one that King spoke to in 1963 when he made his “I have a dream” speech to a country that had not yet passed the federal civil-rights and voting acts that ended legal segregation and other racist measures isn’t merely inaccurate. It’s a way of denying reality so as to twist the cause of civil rights to have it stand for something antithetical to the key points that King was seeking to convey to a divided nation.
To be sure, King saw the problems of African-Americans as going beyond that of restoring to them the legal rights promised to them in the 14th and 15th amendments passed after the 13th—and the outcome of the Civil War—ended slavery. A century of legal discrimination had created a situation in which blacks were operating with a severe handicap economically, one that was unfortunately exacerbated rather than helped by the American welfare state in the second half of the 20th century.
But at its heart, King’s philosophy was one that was embodied in the most famous passage of his 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial: “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.”
It’s a beautiful sentiment that resonates to this day, but one that is flatly contradicted by those who currently claim to speak for African-Americans in the Black Lives Matter movement and among those promoting critical race theory as the only way to understand America.
Critical race theory—and its corollaries which focus on “white privilege”—teaches that the color of their skin is more or less the only thing we should see when encountering someone, and that a person’s background is more important than personal circumstances or behavior. It divides us irrevocably into groups that are either privileged or victims and allows nothing to interfere with that essentially racist view of the world.
King was a complex man who sought to guide a movement that was already at the time of his death becoming more radical and increasingly distant from those unifying ideas that made him a hero to both blacks and whites. His ideas are not easily boiled down to one famous phrase; at their core, they were a plea for all people to be regarded as “created equal” and to be treated equally.
King was also the man who said, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism!” The idea that his philosophy could be perverted into a justification for a bizarre effort to revive segregation, or to justify the anti-Semitism and hatred for Israel that he deplored—as is the case with the BLM movement—is as appalling as it is discouraging. These toxic ideas must be acknowledged as not just wrong but a fundamental rejection of King’s legacy.
We would do well to use the observance of MLK Day to drop the partisan demagoguery we’ve heard so much of from Biden and concentrate on making America a better place for people of all races. Americans need to reject efforts to divide and stigmatize groups. We need to consign that kind of thinking that is so antithetical to King’s work to the past, and not acquiesce in their revival in the name of woke ideology and “anti-racism.”
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.