The hit movie “Barbershop” has drawn fire from the likes of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. for its disrespectful treatment of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, two icons of the civil rights movement. But whatever disrespect the movie shows pales in comparison to the outright manipulation of King’s memory by the American right wing. Justin Zaremby’s column (“Union plan disgraces MLK,” 9/24) criticizing the recent act of civil disobedience is only the latest example of a sustained right-wing effort to distort the legacy of King and the civil rights movement.
The King of right-wing fantasy was a good liberal who just thought the market should stop discriminating against black people, and who felt the best solution to racial oppression in America was for everyone to become “color blind,” pretend racism did not exist, and simply judge everybody ‘by the content of their character.’
The King of history, by contrast, understood the relationship between worker’s rights and racism. He told a labor union meeting in 1967 that “negroes want above all else to abolish poverty in their lives, and in the lives of the white poor. This is the heart of their program. To end humiliation was a start, but to end poverty is a bigger task.” King never thought he could defeat racism without simultaneously fighting for economic justice, or for “more money,” as Zaremby derisively puts it.
Unlike the right wing, King saw nobility in all walks of life. He told striking workers in Memphis in 1968, “So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.” The King of history would have been arrested last Wednesday in solidarity with locals 34 and 35, hospital workers, and graduate student employees, who together stood for the dignity of their work.
It is often said that King was moving steadily toward a more broad-based working-class politics at the time of his assassination, frustrated by the limited gains the civil rights movement alone had been able to achieve. While this may be true, King was always deeply aware of the interdependence between labor rights and civil rights.
As early as 1961 he told an AFL-CIO convention that “I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream — a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity.”
As should be obvious from the sampling above, King’s philosophy of civil disobedience was not limited to disobeying unjust laws. He also believed in standing up for working people’s rights, through loving but powerful means, to achieve a more just community. This was at the core of his belief. It is almost beyond belief that contemporary conservatives would attempt to convince us otherwise.
Tavia Nyong’o is a graduate student in the Department of American Studies.