As an online discussion concerning race grows longer, the probability of a person referencing Martin Luther King, Jr. as a means to justify their racist and/or ignorant attitudes approaches one.
Many contemporary anti-racism activists have expressed frustration in the way MLK--and indeed, the entire 60s civil rights movement--has been "neutered" so as to mask just how radical and revolutionary its agenda was (and, by extension, how far short we fell from achieving it). I've noticed, along with this, a meme that floats around the conservative right that tries to split the "good" civil rights activists of the 60s, whose cause was laudable and just (though not, it's worth noting, during the 60s themselves, as anyone who has read National Review articles from that time knows) from the next generation of Black leaders, who are charlatans and "race-baiters." Dr. King is the emblem of the former group, and perhaps its only political member; virtually no other civil rights pioneer of that era gets similar treatment. Dr. King serves as an apt model because he is quite conveniently dead, and thus unable to take positions that might be inopportune for his more conservative supporters. Had he not been assassinated, I firmly believe that White America would not have accorded King his current valorized status, for the precise reason that it would have been that much more difficult to mythologize his legacy if he was alive to contest it. Hence we have the title of the post: The only "good" civil rights leader is, quite literally, a dead one.
This splitting of the past (or "past", see my third point) and present civil rights leadership is entirely unjustified. First, there is very little division in the controversial elements of the political agenda of the 1960s Black community and the current Black community. "Color-conscious" remedies were always on the table. Black leaders were not hesitant to indict White America for their racism. Barbara Ransby notes the position of Ella Baker (a top SCLC and SNCC organizer) that "previously oppressive practices had to be radically reversed, not simply halted...and corrective measures had to be put into place" [Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2003), 369]. Dr. King, too, was neither particularly accommodating towards the hurt feelings of White moderates, nor opposed to remedial racial preferences. To the former, he suggested in his Letters from a Birmingham Jail that they were possibly more damaging to the prospects of Black liberation than the Klan, "more devoted to 'order' than to justice" and perpetually urging Black activists to "wait" for the time to be ripe for civil rights reform (a time that would never come). To the latter, King wrote in Why We Can't Wait:
Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.
If one reads the actual writings of 1960s civil rights activists -- from Martin Luther King, Ella Baker and Thurgood Marshall to Stokely Carmichael, Harold Cruse, and Malcolm X -- it is nearly impossible to place any of them as color-blind assimilationists, or moderate accommodationists. They wanted change, they wanted it now, and they wanted it to come with the explicit awareness that Blacks were the victims of an intense and systematic campaign of White supremacy that affected and infected all levels of society, far beyond laws that said "Black" and "White". Placing them in any other historical or political framework is naked historical revisionism, pure and simple.
Second, the characteristics associated with the latter group of civil rights activists are rhetorically and substantively identical to those ascribed by White racists in the 60s to the first group. At that time, too, vocal Black leaders were invariably called "agitators" (the contemporary analogue to "race-baiter"), or folks concerned more with their own personal publicity than the needs of ordinary Black people. The "special rights" charge has a long pedigree, dating back to President Andrew Johnson's veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 on the grounds it gave special rights to Blacks. Similarly, the White press often focused on personal scandals and salacious details of activists' personal lives as an excuse for ignoring the substance of their critiques. Along all these axes, the purported nostalgia for the last generation of civil rights leaders is nothing but a facade. It masks the importation of the same racist tropes used against King and his cohorts to the current crop of civil rights leaders. We should be suspicious of these echoes.
Third, and most importantly, the split between the 60s activists and the current ones is ridiculous because often we're talking about the same people. Jesse Jackson was one of Dr. King's top associates later in his career. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), deacon of the Congressional Black Caucus, was beaten as a freedom rider in Alabama in 1961. Thurgood Marshall articulated much of the progressive Black legal agenda while a litigator for the NAACP, and then while serving on the Supreme Court bench up through the early 90s. Maya Angelou was a close friend of Malcolm X, as well as a coordinator for King's SCLC at Dr. King's request. Julian Bond helped found SNCC. Andrew Young was Executive Director of the SCLC and one of King's key lieutenants. By and large, the folks currently represented among the Black leaders were the same folks leading the charge in the 60s civil rights movement. It's schizophrenic to the extreme to simultaneously praise and condemn the same people for the same advocacies in the same words.
Again, Martin Luther King is a useful tool for justifying racism because he died so young. Being dead, he can't contest or contextualize the actual content of his beliefs. Being dead, he can't remind audiences of the criticisms and abuse he was subjected to during his campaigns, and how it is eerily reminiscent of the charges foisted upon contemporary Black leaders. And being dead, he is no longer a political threat, and thus is a safe person to prop up upon an altar and praise. Were he alive, we might be faced with the uncomfortable prospect that this great hero of American history might demand we actually fulfill our covenant with Black citizens, and that would require actual change and reform and sacrifice. Dead people tell no such tales.