The civil rights leader has been transformed into ‘a weightless effigy’ of sorts, but in the Trump era, America needs his actual teachings more than it realizes
The Independent Voices
21 January is dedicated, for the 34th time, to the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr Day in the United States, and this year is particularly special as January 2019 marks 90 years since the activist’s birth.
Parades and concerts will be held to honour the memory of the great civil rights leader. President Trump, no doubt, will offer a tweet in recognition of King’s achievement and legacy. Mike Pence has already used King’s words to defend Trump’s border wall.
But the danger of this commemorative day is that it fossilises King, rather than animating him again for contemporary Americans.
Like many media representations of King following his assassination, the holiday risks contributing to what one of his biographers, Marshall Frady, calls a “pop beatification”. In Frady’s words, he is thereby transformed into “a weightless and reverently laminated effigy of who he was”.
To honour King actively on this holiday, then, requires Americans to turn again to his thought and to reflect on the political and moral lessons it continues to offer. Sadly, there is still an urgent need for Martin Luther King Jr in the United States, even though it is now 50 years since his death.
Steve Bannon: Martin Luther King would be proud of Donald Trump because of low rates of black unemployment
Wary of his many opponents, King did not expect to reach old age. He acknowledged this in his last-ever speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, delivered in Memphis the night before his assassination. “I’ve seen the Promised Land”, King told his audience, before adding sombrely: “I may not get there with you”.
Interestingly, at the start of his speech, King sought to rectify this likely confining of his life to a small span by imagining he had powers of time-travel and could be transported to other moments in history. This exercise in what he calls “mental flight” takes him from Moses’s parting of the Red Sea to the Depression of the 1930s, via “the great heyday of the Roman Empire”, the Renaissance and Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation at a time of profound division in America in 1863.