Martin Luther King Jr and the RNC: Correcting the Record

Those who tuned in to the Republic National Convention last Monday were likely to hear invocations of Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was quoted at length by Sheriff David Clarke early on in the night.

In quoting Dr. King, Sheriff Clarke seemed to bury the reality that the racism, segregation, and injustice that King was fighting against are the result of an intentionally constructed legal, political, and economic system, a system that must be intentionally dismantled.  Clarke’s statement painted a picture that contravenes the true legacy of King’s words and beliefs, and defies our current reality.  Sheriff Clarke cited King for the premise that there is a “basic morality of the rule provided that it is applied equally to both the wealthy and the impoverished, both men and women, and yes, the majority and the minority.”  He went on to opine that following the law is the cornerstone of order and that the recent community protests against discrimination and police brutality in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and in Baton Rouge represent  some type of “anarchy” and “collapse of the social order,” intimating they would be anathema to King.

There was no reckoning with the social conditions undergirding the protests; no recognition that Dr. King and the movement he supported promoted civil disobedience – that the aim was to change the laws because they were unjust.  Not just to change the laws that discriminate on their face, but the laws that contribute to structural discrimination and inequality, regardless if they are applied equally.  King’s aim was justice.

Racial equality.  Equal opportunity.  Economic rights. Dignity for all.  The end to unjust war.  The alleviation of poverty and its root causes.  These are what Martin Luther King stood for.  He called for the “redistribution of economic and political power” and a “revolution of values.”  

To say that the references to Martin Luther King at the RNC failed to provide the whole picture is, perhaps, the understatement of the year.  To say that quoting King without this context is morally dishonest is more accurate.  To say it is deceptive is also true.   But, more to the point, the explicit invocation of the words of Doctor King in absence of a discussion of his underlying beliefs is harmful.  If we don’t deal with the deep roots and lasting legacy of entrenched racism and discrimination, we will continue to see communities divided and devastated by violence, and the racial fault lines will deepen.  The erosion of trust between elected officials and the constituents they are meant to serve will likewise increase.  As Charles Blow recently observed, racial inequality is an urgent issue

There is a real moral, social and political cost to inaction.  If America endeavors to be a leader, our policies have to change.  Global economic leadership requires robust economic opportunities for ALL.  It requires pathways to education fall ALL.  Political leadership requires a system where voices of dissent are acknowledged, not silenced.  Human rights leadership abroad requires laws and policies at home that that take into account the voices and needs of all Americans, regardless of the origins of their parents, their gender and sexual orientation, regardless of their faith.

It is worth correcting the record today.  It is worth taking a look at the whole picture, and reminding ourselves what King really meant when he reflected that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.

We don’t even need to look beyond the RNC.  King presented a blueprint for change to the RNC Platform Committee himself in 1964.  More than 40 years later, they still resonate.  For starters, King prioritized human rights.  He noted simply that “the struggle for rights, is, at bottom, a struggle for opportunities.”  (A fact that Republicans clearly rejected in their 2016 Platform, by emphatically refusing to join any human rights agreements).  To improve rights, and therefore, opportunities, King proposed a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged,” which emphasizes alleviating poverty and prioritizes meeting the needs of our society’s most vulnerable groups, consistent with the human rights framework.  The crux of the Bill is special measures to overcome “the deprivation and humiliation” of poverty, in particular for communities of color, where the deprivation was most acute.  The Bill was meant to address the detrimental effects of poverty felt across racial lines as well – it prioritizes meeting the basic needs of the most marginalized.

King’s emphasis on ensuring social security was about more than access to housing and jobs, it was about re-orienting the approach to national priorities:  “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” he cautioned, and “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. … history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.”   

As we look forward to the election, we would be wise to heed Dr. King’s words and their true meaning.  Spoken in 1967, amid the Vietnam war, this clarion call can guide us today:

Action must start with honesty. 


[A version of this piece also appeared on the Human Rights at Home Blog]


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