GOP Congressmen, conservatives and the “anti-woke” along the political spectrum are citing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in attacks against critical race theory (CRT). President Trump said that “Critical race theory is a Marxist doctrine that rejects the vision of Martin Luther King Jr.” Sen. Kevin McCarthy tweeted that “Critical Race Theory goes against everything Martin Luther King Jr. taught us.” Republican State Rep. Steve Toth, the author of the bill that bans teaching critical race theory in Texas, said that the bill “echoes Dr. King’s wish that we should judge people on the content of their character, not [the color of] their skin.”
At the same time, critics of CRT are supporting laws that would essentially ban students from reading King beyond a small list approved by GOP-controlled state legislatures. In the way that these laws have defined CRT, they would ostensibly limit the teaching of MLK to a single decontextualized line from his “I Have A Dream” speech.
Without giving the actual definition of CRT, a majority Republican supported South Carolina bill states that “for purposes of this chapter, ‘critical race theory’ means any of the following tenets” The bill asserts that CRT teaches kids that people of a certain sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin are superior or inferior, should be adversely treated and are are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by members of those categories. In Texas House Bill 3979, schools are prevented from giving lessons or trainings that make an “individual … feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”
In both cases, a teacher arguably could not mention that, for example, King wrote “Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?” The Texas bill also said that social studies curriculum should include “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” but considering other parts of the bill, how should teachers explain Dr. King’s conclusion that “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate” without hurting some white students’ feelings? If we accepted some of the critical assertions about what CRT teaches students, Dr. King certainly said things that could be considered “anti-white” by the standards of the past and the present.
In books like “Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community” or “Why We Can’t Wait,” King was clear on the persistence of systemic racism through law and unjust order. If critics of CRT want to ground their criticism in good faith, MLK is not someone who lends credibility to their argument. Misappropriating the Civil Rights icon reveals a great deal of dangerous cynicism.
Far from the colorblind conservative Christian that exists in the memories of the Right, King wrote “With all her dazzling achievements and stupendous material strides, America has maintained its strange ambivalence on the question of racial justice.” He discussed how the same people lambasting “handouts” to African Americans were provided an economic safety net and subsidized into the middle class. Sen. McCarthy said that the “The Left is trying to take America backward.” Conversely, King said “The step backward has a new name today. It is called ‘white backlash’.”
Today’s Republicans often deflect the role conservatives had in attacking King and the Civil Rights Movement, typically by mentioning that the majority of his fervent critics were Democrats. Though it is true many staunch segregationists were Democrats, this rebuttal is a sleight-of-hand—seeing as this group were mostly conservatives, back when the parties had not been both sorted and polarized along race and ideological lines. The GOP is quick to raise the Party of Lincoln banner, while King argued that the “illustrious ghost of Abraham Lincoln is not sufficient for winning Negro confidence, not so long as the party fails to shrink the influence of its ultra-right wing.”
Conservatives are ignoring the ways in which their view of King changed, specifically around the Reagan-era. Ronald Reagan once stated that laws like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act (both of which King fought for) were bad legislation that humiliated the South and argued that though it was morally wrong, individuals had the right to discriminate against Negroes. After initially being apprehensive about MLK Day, Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983 but also wrote a letter stating that that the day was “based on an image, not reality” of King. Fast-forward to 2013, the editors of National Review wrote that “left-wingers sometimes lament that King is not remembered in full. They say that he was hostile to capitalism and to the Vietnam War. It is a historically accurate point, and it is a historically irrelevant point.” About the article and the curated perception of King, Dr. Robert Greene II wrote “They acknowledge the uneasy tension between historical memory and actual history—and dismiss it.” This phrase succinctly sums up the CRT scare and how conservatives have used King towards their ideological ends.
To be clear, we should not dismiss King’s universalism. He was a minister and theologian fighting to force America to live out its purported Christian values, and hold up the mirror of 1 John 4:20: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” One cannot love thy neighbor as thyself without a commitment to them, regardless of their background. And as with most movements led by oppressed people, universal and nonviolent appeals are not just moral, but tactical and practical. They provide some form of empathy through proximity—an appeal to “You and I are more alike than different”— and a moral high-ground to credibly point to society’s hypocrisy, in both the literal (say one thing, do another) and Biblical (take the log out of your own eye before you take the speck out of your brother’s) sense.
King was a skilled organizer who understood that the success of the Civil Rights Movement, though led by African Americans, was also contingent on building solidarity with white Americans susceptible to being allies or joining the cause—even if he at times felt “there has never been any single, solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans to genuine equality for Negroes.” However, when (not only, but particularly) conservatives mythologize King, his universalism (both genuine and practical) gets optimized in a way that replaces the rest of his politics with an obtuse colorblindness. It’s almost as if King sprung from the ether with a monochromatic Dream, but did or said nothing else; as if he wasn’t an African American fighting for the minds, bodies and souls of African Americans.
The attacks on CRT and false narratives about King are two sides of the same coin; dual facets of a broader argument that, essentially, historical accuracy comes second to social cohesion dictated by conservatives. This is why Timothy Snyder, a scholar of totalitarianism, argued that new laws restricting the discussion of race in American schools are akin to the memory laws in totalitarianism in Europe. Echoing Snyder’s sentiment, laws being passed around the U.S. have a perverse effect, where “Teachers succeed if students do not understand something.” In many ways, a student who can’t learn what King stood for and against is almost certainly not equipped to understand the complicated history of our nation, let alone why racial inequalities exist in the present. If teachers aren’t allowed to connect the past to the present, students likely can only assume that systemic racism is a myth—a premise and conclusion that King found absurd, even before CRT existed as a legal theory.
Yes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. My dream is that the conservatives and the “anti-woke” with the loudest microphones would one day read even one of King’s books in full. While I think they are actually quite reflective of his actual politics, please don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself.
Joshua Adams is a Staff Writer for Colorlines. He’s a writer, journalist and educator from the south side of Chicago. You can follow him @JournoJoshua