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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

MLK’s Legacy at 50

Today marks the last of the major MLK-related anniversaries for a long while, which means that there are likely going to be more articles about him in the media today than will appear on any day for the next half century. Here are some of them, which may be of particular interest to those who are interested in ways MLK’s legacy can still inform Democratic strategy:

Rev. Jesse Jackson’s “How Dr. King Lived Is Why He Died: We owe it to Dr. King to commemorate the man in full: a radical, ecumenical, antiwar, pro-immigrant and scholarly champion of the poor” at The New York Times will probably have more readers than any other MLK retrospective appearing today. Jackson’s best paragraph: “Dr. King’s spirit has been our moral guidepost for 50 years. That spirit is alive today with the high school students of Parkland, Fla., as they push the country toward sensible gun control. It is alive with the teachers of West Virginia, who have blazed a trail for other workers. It is alive with Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, Colin Kaepernick and thousands of African-American voters who defied the pundits and sent an Alabama Democrat to the Senate for the first time in a generation. It is alive with the Rev. William Barber as he resurrects Dr. King’s last crusade, the Poor People’s Campaign.”

At The Washington Post’s Daily 202, James Hohman’s “MLK’s final speech — delivered 50 years ago today — was full of timely and timeless teachings” dissects King’s last message, and notes in one moving graph: “That night, he framed what was happening in Memphis as a flash point in the global struggle for human dignity. “It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and His children who can’t eat three square meals a day,” the reverend told a few thousand people who had come to see him. “In the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done and done in a hurry to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty — their long years of hurt and neglect — the whole world is doomed. … If we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.””

“In our long effort to moderate King, to make him safe, we have forgotten how unpopular he had become by 1968,” write Stephen and Paul Kendrick, co-authors of “Douglass and Lincoln: How a Revolutionary Black Leader & a Reluctant Liberator Struggled to End Slavery & Save the Union.” in their Washington Post op-ed. “In his last years, King was harassed, dismissed and often saddened. These years after Selma are often dealt with in a narrative rush toward martyrdom, highlighting his weariness. But what is missed is his resilience under despair. It was when his plans faltered under duress that something essential emerged. The final period of King’s life may be exactly what we need to recall, bringing lessons from that time of turmoil to our time of disillusion…Fifty years later, it would look too familiar to the King of 1968 to see our continued economic inequality, hawkishness, backlash to civil rights gains, and racist violence from Charleston to Charlottesville. His response then was to resist exhaustion from the deluge of issues and to enlarge his work instead, hold firm his insistence.”

CNN Opinion has an excellent collection of essays from diverse writers in “Who is Martin Luther King Jr. to us, 50 years later?,” including a powerful closing piece by Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, president of Our Revolution, who writes, “Rather than discovering the shared experiences that unite us, we obsess over the political labels that divide us. Rather than discovering our beautiful selves, we obsess over who’s in our camp and who’s outside of it…This obsession with political affiliation has inspired a “win at all costs” mindset. Most of us can barely stand to be maligned in the comments section of news stories, or in social media threads, but King withstood so much more. He famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that; hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” He withstood his share of hate, but he did not allow it to make him bitter nor did he allow it to alter what he envisioned as possible for the future.”

At The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner writes, “Fifty years have gone by since his death. And far too little has changed—or has even changed for the worse. Police still kill young black men with impunity. In King’s era, blacks could be arrested or killed in the South for trying to exercise their civil rights. Today, they can be arrested or killed in the North for walking down the street…Each generation needs to discover MLK’s truths in its own way. For instance, the March for Our Lives and the gathering movement against gun violence, initiated by relatively affluent high school students from Parkland, was at risk of taking the spotlight away from the gun violence that has ravaged black communities, including police violence. But these groups have been able to come together, with compassion and solidarity.”

Also at The American Prospect, Randall Kennedy observes “What should we focus upon in marking the 50th anniversary of this somber landmark? I suggest three things: the particulars of King’s achievements as a liberal dissident; the trying circumstances he faced at the end of his life; and the virtues of his principal strategy and aim—coalition politics in the service of a decent, egalitarian, multiracial society…“As we work to get rid of the economic strangulation that we face as a result of poverty, we must not overlook the fact that millions of Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, Indians and Appalachian whites are also poverty-stricken. Any serious war against poverty must of necessity include them.” The Black Power slogan, King complained, “gives priority to race precisely at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike.” He preferred the slogan “Power for poor people,” understanding and teaching that a common struggle for economic justice is key to suitably addressing the recalcitrant problem of racial injustice.”

One of Dr. King’s favorite publications, The Nation is providing links to four of his many articles for the magazine. But also read “Dr. King Knew That Labor Rights Are Human Rights” by John Nichols, who notes, “As right-wing Republican governors (and some supposedly more moderate Democrats) target public employees in particular and union members in general for abuse, it is necessary for the right-minded and right-hearted people of today to defend public workers—just as the right-minded and right-hearted people of Memphis joined King in defending the workers of that city in 1968…King’s call for labor rights, economic fairness, and racial justice rings as true today as it ever did. “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness,” he declared on the night before he was slain. “Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”

The Boston Review is also running, “Forum V: Fifty Years Since MLK,” a collection of in-depth essays about Dr. King’s legacy and it’s meaning for our times. We conclude with a segment from Brandon Terry’s “MLK Now,” in which he writes, “It is not enough for people to be angry,” King argued; “the supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.” Crucially, King never denied the existence of righteous anger or the threat of rebellion, but incorporated these passions into his political thinking as challenges to be redirected toward worthier ends…One concrete implication of this view—beyond curbing the impulse to mock and condemn on social media—is to avoid forms of political resistance that seek to “humiliate the opponent” rather than “win his friendship and understanding.” These vengeful approaches deny others the capacities for moral learning. They foreclose unanticipated forms of reconciliation and community, and judge, a priori, the life horizons of others based on their worst transgressions, cognitive mistakes, or group identities. Worse, the misguided notion that such practices build partisan solidarity and affirmation are woefully shortsighted. Inevitably, such passions turn inward, destroying organizations with recrimination, excommunications, and cynicism.”

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