The legacy of slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. is always in flux. This summer he was immortalized as the first African American and non-president to get a monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The statue (which is a lot more impressive in person than in photographs), was almost as heavily debated as who King was and how we speak of him. While some feel its important to look at what King accomplished while also acknowledging he was human, with all the good, bad, complications, issues and flaws that come with humanity, others prefer a lionization of his image, and to some extent, a complete sanitization. Leading to what scholar Cornel West once famously called the "Santa Clausification" of Martin Luther King Jr.
It's important to remember that King was a man. An extraordinary man, but a man all the same. There is this tendency for people to believe they can't have an impact on their world around them, that one person cannot make a difference, and that those who loom as legends in our history were somehow super human when they carried out the feats that shaped our country today. But they were just people, and they had all the fears, doubts and desires of other people. Hence making their accomplishments all the more incredible.
To overcome the human condition in order to save it.
Here's what others are saying this MLK Day:
The Obama Family commemorated King's life this weekend by attending a Sunday celebration service at Washington's Zion Baptist Church.
The President also spoke today of Dr. King at Browne Education Campus in Washington, D.C., commenting on the recent controversy of a misquote on the King memorial on the Mall:
"I know there’s been a lot of controversy lately about the quote on the memorial and they’re changing it and making some modifications, but if you look at that speech talking about Dr. King as a drum major, what he really said was that all of us can be a drum major for service, all of us can be a drum major for justice. There’s nobody who can’t serve. Nobody who can’t help somebody else. And whether you’re seven or six or whether you’re 76, then you can find opportunities to make an enormous difference in your community. And at a time when the country has been going through some difficult economic times, for us to be able to come together as a community, people from all different walks of life, and make sure that we’re giving back, that’s ultimately what makes us the strongest, most extraordinary country on Earth, is because we pull together when times are good, but also when times are hard. And you guys all represent that."
For the Chicago Sun-Times, Rev. Jesse Jackson -- who worked with and marched with Dr. King -- writes about how King helped shape the New South.
At The Daily Beast, John Avlon writes that to forget how King was attacked and slandered in his lifetime is disengenious. He points out how many have pushed to whitewash the complexites of American history and dimmish the real struggle that had to take place to make America more equal. Avlon specifically hightlights the "turn around" many conservative populists have had on King in recent years, scrambling to identify themselves with a more "sanitized" version of the King legacy, ignoring the fact that typically those who shared their ideology were King's biggest opponents.
It’s important to note that Dr. King’s most vicious critics were not Republicans. But they were conservatives—conservative populist southern Democrats, to be exact.
But when we hear attacks once directed at Dr. King echoing in our politics today—calling opponents anti-American, communist or hell-bent on destroying the Constitution—it is worth caution and condemnation. They are likely to sound just as unhinged when historic perspective sets in.
Just 50 years ago, the fault lines of American politics were still influenced by the battles of the Civil War. The South voted straight Democrat from 1860 to 1960 because the Republican Party was the Party of Lincoln. That historic legacy also helps explain why Martin Luther King, Sr., was a Republican. And Mitt Romney’s father George marched with MLK in Michigan, a sign of significant political courage at the time.
The point is not that conservative populists today are racist—that is an ugly charge that gets thrown around too reflexively from the left in our politics.
The partisan labels only distract from the deeper continuity—conservative populists using the politics of fear and hatred of the “other” to hold onto power. It results in an insidious form of group-think that attacks anyone who threatens orthodoxy. And too often it is wrapped up in lofty rhetoric about commitment to the Bible and the Constitution, while opponents are cast as secular socialists or worse.
Dr. Wilmer Leon writes for The Root of how MLK's more revolutionary message has been hijacked and compromised, turning the fiery figure into a starry-eyed dreamer from the non-violent warrior for peace he was.
People are comfortable with dreamers. Why? Dreamers are safe and in a restful state. Dreamers are docile and easy to manipulate. To cast King in the light of a dreamer allows people to be convinced that substantive change resulting from clear vision and direct action is not necessary.
All too often, King "the dreamer" is taken out of the historical context within which he developed. The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the civil rights movement were not created in a vacuum. King and these events are a part of a historical continuum that began in August of 1619, when those first 20 and some odd African "indentured servants" disembarked from that Dutch Man-O-War in Jamestown, Va., and continues to this day.
Democratic Strategist and author Donna Brazile writes for CNN of how it's important to rememberthe fight for voter's rights during this MLK day, and how those rights continue to be under threat by those seeking to reverse the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Associated Press writes about King's steadily evolving image and how last year brought us both the opening of his monument on the mall and the opening of the play based on his life, "The Mountaintop," on Broadway.
Occupy Wall Street protesters contrast their movement with King's legacy.
The Grio has multiple videos up (from digging through the NBC archives, no doubt) of Dr. King. One of the selections posted today was of the Civil Rights leader telling a joke while chatting with Harry Belafonte when the actor, singer and activist was a substitute host for The Tonight Show in 1968.
Share your thoughts on this year's commemoration of MLK's birthday today in the comments below.