February may have been Black History Month, but let's be honest: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a problem.
He was always challenging governments, challenging attitudes, challenging our moral compass. He tried to make us see things we did not want to see: poverty, racism, war. He was attempting to bring us closer to an America that could only be called a dream. The Tea Party thinks they are doing that, too. Unfortunately, their beliefs and attitudes are the part of the American experience that Dr. King gave his life trying to change.
Dr. King was a liberal. Yes, had he lived longer, his beliefs might have changed over time, but the theology and philosophies that defined him would have remained. He believed in the role of government. What we now celebrate about Dr. King are his attempts to make government work, not just for African-Americans, but, with his attempt to end the war in Vietnam, for everyone. He was the embodiment of the liberation theology that Glenn Beck instructs is not religion. In fact, the King-led civil rights movement was liberation theology in action. He knew government could not solve all of our problems, but he understood that government could assist in making America, America.
Dr. King instructed his followers not to vote for conservative presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964 because Goldwater was against the Civil Rights Act. Dr. King was in favor of a woman's right to choose. Baynard Rustin, the openly gay man who organized the March on Washington in the 1960's, was a chief member of Dr. King's inner staff. Today, the notion of conservative principles is being offered as being more American than ending poverty, war, sexism, racism and homophobia. This is not the America Dr. King struggled to make a reality.
For Dr. King, nonviolence was not a just a political technique, but a way of life. The idea of living in a society where signs are posted on public doors to remind us that we are forbidden from bringing our concealed handguns into banks, stores or schools would strike him as absurd. The Congressional response to the recent Arizona tragedy of Congressmen carrying guns and increasing security instead of making laws preventing the mentally ill from buying weapons and equipment to kill as many victims as possible is just another example of Dr. King's dream falling on deaf ears.
In terms of debt, Dr. King would ask for money to be saved by an immediate end to the war in Afghanistan, and for less money to be spent on the military. He would then, as he did with President Lyndon Johnson, ask that that money be used to create jobs for the poor in our inner cities and for others suffering from joblessness around the country. He would be for everyone having health care in the richest nation in the world.
But, more importantly, Dr. King would remind us of the way he was treated during his career trying to end segregation. He would remind us that he was called a Communist and a Socialist by those fighting against change. He would remind us of how they called him Martin Luther Coon and how they used hanging nooses and images of monkeys to taunt and abuse him. These images are very similar to the ones used at Tea Party rallies.
He would remind us of how he was spit on in Chicago and Birmingham, just as Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia) and other members of the Black Caucus were spit on and called the n-word outside of Congress by members of the Tea Party. The result of that incident was a debate about whether it had happened, or whether the Black members of Congress had simply made it up. A friend of mine recently saw a bumper sticker here in Lawrence, Kansas (the only blue dot in a red state). It read: “The Zoo has an African Lion. The White House has a lying African.” This is a common joke among Tea Party members and other contemporary racists.
Dr. King would also remind us of our selective memory. The source of Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi's ignorance of the fact that the White Citizens' Council was the Ku Klux Klan's version of the Chamber of Commerce is also why the Tea Party didn't understand that calling the first African-American president a monkey was racist. There are elements of the American experience that many of us simply deny and are not taught. These people do not know and they do not want to know. They live in a world where they never attempt to relate to those on the margins of society. Ignorance allows them to live a safe and happy life alongside those who struggle. This problem will probably never go away, until we expand our ideas of what we teach and how we teach it.
The recent reading of the Constitution in the Congress with the naughty parts removed and the removal of the n-word from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” an anti-slavery book, are just further examples of how we refuse to deal with the realities of American life. It is the fairy-tale version of our history, like giving a child the “went to a better place” story when someone dies. This is the version we all are forced to live with because many of our teachers are not racially confident enough to express or teach our real history. As a result, the legacy and lessons of Dr. King, and our racial history, suffer – and so do we.
We like to place Dr. King in a safe container and let him out on Martin Luther King Day. We talk about one speech out of the thousands that he gave. We try to reduce his power and use him in a timid, apolitical and homogenous way. As a result, Americans are denied the real story and details of his message. We are given a historical pass in connecting the links between the problems and behavior of then and now. The Tea Party is the new White Citizens Council, and, like the Tea Partiers in their blindness, many of us simply cannot see the connection.