Let's not mince words. Were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. alive today, he would be at risk for being imprisoned indefinitely, without charges or access to legal counsel, as an "enemy combatant."
He would be decried, by powerful figures inside and outside government, as at worst a domestic terrorist, at best a publicity-seeking menace whose criticisms of America gave comfort to our unseen enemies.
King would not have the opportunity to engage in repeated nonviolent civil disobediences. Media would be quickly bored by the spectacles; a nation accustomed to police violence against protesters yawns at the tanks, rubber bullets, chemical weapons, and "preventative" arrests now commonly used against those who employ the same tactics King himself once used. The felony charges against King would put him away for years — if he were allowed to stand trial at all.
The powerful black religious networks that produced King and so many other courageous civil rights leaders would be attacked by federal prosecutors as providing financial support for terrorism. Church groups' tax exemptions would be lifted; records would be seized. Charges would be brought, perhaps under federal RICO statutes or Patriot Act provisions. The FBI harassment that hounded King throughout his career would today be fiercer, and subject to no judicial oversight.
In an era where a federal holiday has served to both commemorate and sanitize the history of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., White America has forgotten just how radical and controversial a figure he was in his time. Many of these charges — domestic terrorist, commie dupe, publicity hound — were leveled against King during the 14 long-but-so-short years of his national prominence. The police were violent. The church groups were criticized.
The differences, today, are twofold. First, our government has granted itself enormously greater legal powers to crush dissent. And, secondly, much of the public, taught by years of government rhetoric and media sensationalism to dismiss dissenters as violent and illegitimate, is predisposed to let the government get away with it. Moral appeals by leaders like King would have far less chance of success. We no longer grant presumed moral authority to either religious leaders or to those wronged by the world; in today's media-saturated, scandal-obsessed age, King's moral failings (e.g., his various affairs) might well be used to undermine his movement.
Moreover, today, we've heard it all before. The world is brought to our doorstep, teeming with suffering, each day. Sadly, as our planet's woes have become more immediate, and America's role in its inequalities more obvious to those who would look, many of us have chosen to tune out — out of fear, or boredom, or despair that we ordinary people can do little to change things.
Ordinary people can change the world, of course — King is one of our country's shining examples, still recent enough that many of us were alive during his lifetime. But as his holiday becomes sanitized, and his image becomes lionized beyond all recognition, it has become harder and harder to draw personal inspiration from his story — or his politics.
This year, even more than in the past, it has become essential to remember that King did far more than have a dream. Along with Mohandas Gandhi, he was one of the two most internationally revered symbols of nonviolence in the 20th century. He spent his adult life defying authority and convention, citing a higher moral authority. He gave hope and inspiration for the liberation of people of color on six continents.
King is not a legend because he believed in diversity trainings and civic ceremonies. He is remembered because he took serious risks and, as the Quakers say, spoke truth to power. King did far more than have a nice dream. Unfortunately, we don't hear his powerful indictments of poverty, the Vietnam War, and the military-industrial complex. Today, as American soldiers fight two major wars on the far side of the world, and the US military wades quietly into a half dozen more — all in non-white countries — they're more timely than ever. But it's not likely we'll hear much on the networks of King pronouncing the spiritual death of a country that would spend so much to kill and so little to help people live. That's a little too touchy nowadays.
The literal whitewashing of King also serves another purpose: to locate American racism as safely in the South and in our historical past. The changes of the past half century are, indeed, remarkable; Jim Crow seems today as unthinkable as slavery itself. But struggles against racial equality happened in every state — not just Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. As for our progress since then, consider: the persistently huge economic gaps between whites and non-whites; the horrific public health indices in some non-white areas, including the re-emergence of TB and widespread, endemic hunger among often non-white children; the shameful failure of public education in many predominantly non-white school districts; the War on Drugs and its imprisonment of a generation of non-white youth; the race-coded political attacks on welfare and workfare programs; the near-complete dismantling of affirmative action; and the still-striking disparity between how America looks and how its leaders look. We still have a long, long way to go.
If the King of 1955, or 1965, were alive today, he'd be talking about all of this. King would also have something to say about America's eagerness to consider every human being of a particular shading as a potential terrorist. He would be accused of treason for his pacifism, as he was reviled for "Communism" back in the day. Instead of the FBI trying to bring him down, he, and most of his associates, would be prosecutable under anti-terrorism statutes. And the moral outrage of Americans, that made his work so effective? These days, we prefer denial.
Dr. King, nonviolent martyr to reconciliation and justice, has become a Hallmark Card, a warm, fuzzy, feel-good invocation of neighborliness, a file photo for sneakers or soda commercials, a reprieve for post-holiday shoppers, an excuse for a three-day weekend, a cardboard cutout used for photo ops by the same political leaders that wage wars and let black children starve.
He deserves better. We all do.