“Give us the ballot (Yes), and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South (All right) and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr in
a May 17, 1957 speech in Washington, D.C.
As the new millennium becomes not so new any more, and we together circling the sun on this celestial body called earth endure our workaday scrabbles and grievances, large and small, we can glance backward at the past to figure out how to endure the future.
Time and tested words of wisdom offer succor during the passage of harsh times, trial and tribulation, none more so than Martin Luther King. The present day hardships of armed conflict, decisiveness, and grinding hunger and poverty are arguably as omnipresent as they were during his day. Most tellingly, the continuation of such turmoil all but ensures that his message will resonate into the foreseeable future. And yet, curiously, the aura of his words and the power of his influence have become appropriated by factions that seem opposition to the very tenets he espoused.
Nixon, Reagan, and (now) Trump
“The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the “Negrophobe” Whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the Blacks, the Whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”
—Republican Party strategist and 1968 Nixon campaign adviser Kevin P. Phillips
Frankly, this is not a new phenomenon. One of the most complex chief executives, our 37th President Richard M. Nixon, had an amicable relationship with King and initially supported civil rights during the Cold War. He was smart enough to recognize how racial discord could be a formidable weapon for the Russians and their allies in undermining the United States domestically. Denied the Presidency in 1960, as the Rev. Art Cribbs notes, Nixon blazed a path towards his elusive goal by devising and implementing the now famous “Southern Strategy,” to lure Southern Whites into the Republican fold.
“The whole secret of politics is ‘knowing who hates who,’” Nixon insider Kevin Phillips was quoted during the 1968 presidential campaign.
Revered by the Far-Right faithful, the 40th President of these United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan, vacillated in his support of civil and progressive rights, as only a politician of epic chameleon-like skills could do. Initially resistant to proclaiming the fallen martyr’s birthday a national holiday, he eventually reversed the field for political expediency. Eloquent as only a former actor could be, he later spent the majority of his career in public service undermining the cause of human justice.
Invoking King’s name in justifying his decisions of state, Reagan employed a relatively new concept of reverse discrimination, as he defended his selection of ultra conservatives to the highest levels of the judicial system.
“They don’t worship at the altar of forced busing and mandatory quotas. They don’t believe you can remedy past discrimination by mandating new discrimination,” he said in a speech before the American Bar Association on August 1, 1983.
Twisted truth: Politics and
couplings of convenience
“The misappropriation of Dr. King’s work and the continued abuse and vile interpretation of Jesus are consistent practices of those inclined to embrace evil and hatred. Biblically, even Satan was skilled in quoting Sacred Text to twist the Truth.”
—The Rev. Dr. Art Cribbs
Art Cribbs’ spiritual journey as an academic, minister, and theologian reached a plateau when he connected with celebrated scholar Margaret Walker Alexander when he moved back to his ancestral home in Mississippi, circa 1984.
“My observations of the numerous churches and the rhetoric of white evangelicals confounded me. It was the number of Baptist and Methodist churches throughout the state that captured my attention. Black and White Christians living together in proximity but worshiping separately in their different churches,” he remembers.
“I called the novelist and great writer Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander on the telephone,” he continued.
Her explanation shocked him.
“They may all call themselves Baptists, Methodists, and Evangelicals, but they don’t serve the same God,” she said.
“Her words hit me like a bolt of lightning.”
She helped clear up some of the uncertainty still circulating years after the social progress of the mid-century. Earlier, as a political science undergrad at UC Berkeley, he learned that one could secure election to public office by embracing established religion.
“You don’t have to believe it, you just have to identify with it,” he explains.
Today, Cribbs lays the collapse of the middle class and the expansion of homelessness at Reagan’s feet. Well before he entered the White House, he dismantled California’s mental health system, igniting the expansion of the Prison Industrial System, in clear opposition to the Christian tenets his evangelical followers presume to uphold.
Other mandates leading up the 2008 economic crisis were either the handiwork of Reagan or those who picked up his mantle.
The pursuit of an “America First” agenda, immigration policies (including the separation of children from their parents), rescinding of health care initiatives, and overall intolerance are a byproduct of the traditions established in his wake. If Jesus Christ were alive in the present day, Cribbs believes he would find no support among the minions of the Far-Right.
He states flatly that if the Jewish preacher were spreading the message now, “they (for right- wing Republicans) would be in line to crucify him again.”
In sharp contrast to this master manipulator of the collective psyche, our 39th president, Jimmy Carter, had a mixed record as a politician (serving just a single term), but maintained his beliefs in Christianity regardless of the ramifications.
“I don’t think the Republican party is a party full of the almighty God nor is the Democratic party. They both have weaknesses. And I’m not inextricably bound to either party.”
—Martin Luther King in a 1958 interview at Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C.
“When I witnessed Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington speech as an intern back in 1963, I dreamed about doing big things to help my state and our country.”
—Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2020.
Today, Sen. McConnell is mostly known as an advocate for limiting Barack Obama to a single presidential term (“the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” he said in a 2010 quote), a task at which he failed. Since then he has distinguished himself by his opposition to social programs and promoting tax incentives to the very rich. Others of his ink are preoccupied by making racist and divisive remarks while claiming King as one of their own.
At 93 years old, Methodist pastor James Morris Lawson’s activism precedes his association with King, going back to his serving 13 months in prison for refusing to be drafted into the military during the Korean War (1950-53). Upon his release, he served as a missionary in India, where he encountered an arcane form of protest called “satyagraha” (a Sanskrit word meaning ‘holding on to truth,’ or ‘truth force’), which he later introduced to King, who in turn used it as the foundation for non-violent protest in America.
In spite of McConnell’s invocation of King’s name as a catalyst for his entry into public service, Lawson flatly labels the senator a racist, by his opposition to stem voting rights an issue central in King’s push for equality.
Along with others denouncing the Senate minority leader’s hypocrisy, Lawson points to “…his track record is as racist, intent on perpetuating White male dominance!”
This appears to indicate McConnell is in lock-step with our 45th President, Donald Trump and others of his ink who have adopted the King mantra for his own ends.
“I listen better to the African-American people than anybody else. Anybody else in this room,” Trump said on Aug. 30, 2020 before an assembly of civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King III.
The irony was not lost on anyone, including those not in attendance. As Cribbs noted in contributing to this article, “…Satan was skilled in quoting Sacred Text to twist the truth.”
And so it goes. An icon becomes a figure of convenience, a medium for shrewd politicians to utilize to prove that they aren’t racist.
At their core, Black people are naturally conservative, but as Cribbs points out, the Party of Lincoln bears little resemblance to the entity that championed abolition, and for all its flaws, the Democratic ticket seems the only viable alternative on the political horizon.
“I think it’s time for there to be massive civil disobedience and massive noncooperation with evil.”
—Bernice Albertine King, attorney, minister, and youngest child of Martin Luther King, Jr.