Politicization of Martin Luther King Jr. detracts from legacy

Christina Coleburn, Contributing Columnist

For those who doubt the capability of our politicians and media commentators to come together without the petty politics, consider the events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington to be your affirmative answer.

In an ideal America, one above the “guided missiles and misguided men” that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out against, the semi-centennial of his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech would have been met with bipartisan solidarity to advance racial unity. Instead, the Washington establishment chose to behave in a fashion befitting only to the pettiness of politics — exploiting King’s message for ideological gain.

Last week, on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor”, host Bill O’Reilly presumptuously contended that King would disparage the “pernicious” rap industry if he were alive today. Two days later, Democratic Congressman John Lewis likened the “injustice” of the George Zimmerman verdict to a cause King would swiftly undertake. These politicizations of King’s message are intellectually dishonest and culturally anachronistic. They do not achieve the intended goal of furthering a party platform, but rather, they diminish a legacy that belongs to all Americans.

Upholding this position does not equate to believing that King would be ambivalent towards the contemporary challenges faced by African-Americans. Would King be concerned that blacks are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than whites? Probably. Would the statistic that one in three black males will be imprisoned in their lifetime alarm him? Most likely. Still, there is a distinct difference between deeming that King would be disappointed by the mass incarceration of black men, and presuming that he would blame this trend on factors that were unforeseeable to the ’60s populace.

On what grounds can O’Reilly remark that King “would [not] be happy with the rap industry and other pernicious entertainment aimed at the young?” Hip-hop and rap developed in the ’70s, years after King was assassinated, a truth that displaces the leader from the genre’s mainstream emergence. More importantly, we cannot forget that rap originally served to increase cultural consciousness about issues surrounding urban areas. How can we say with certainty that King would be disappointed by this effort without abandoning historical integrity?

To Lewis’ Trayvon Martin claim, my question still stands. While the black community’s discontent with the verdict is undeniable, the case was fairly tried. Who can definitively say that King would be consumed with hatred towards an acquitted man rather than pleased by our growing dissatisfaction towards racial profiling? We cannot know, and for prominent political figures, it is irresponsible to assume.

Perverting King’s message for a partisan agenda will never achieve the desired effect of tipping ideological scales. It will only succeed in reviving the worst of King’s fears — remaining a nation of misguided men.

Christina Coleburn is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected].