Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Hijacking of Martin Luther King

It has become an annual tradition for somebody who is selling some idea totally antithetical to what Martin Luther King believed, to declare that King "would have approved." I wrote about one such story in a blog post from 2011, "Pentagon Celebrates Martin Luther King Day?" in which I broke down the absurdity of a Defense Department lawyer's claim that Dr. King would approve of war, as long as it's in response to the threat of terrorism.

Now here we are again, another MLK day, and here are more absurd self-serving distortions of Dr. King.

Larry Ward, a political consultant who created the National Gun Appreciation series of pro-gun rights events that occurred last weekend, went on CNN to proclaim that he wanted to “honor the legacy of Dr. King.” Pretending to tip his hat to Dr. King, blacks and civil rights activists, he went so far as to say that slavery may never have happened in the United States if African-Americans had owned guns.

Shall we unpack this to show how ridiculous it is? No, the other commentator on the show took care of that:

We could just mention that Larry Ward's business is, plain and simple, Republican party public relations. As always, many people who were part of the recent gun appreciation events do not know or care that the main interest of its organizers is not about gun rights, it's about Republican party politics.

Perhaps we should point out that a few days after going on his press push, it was revealed that one of Mr. Ward's sponsors for the event is American Third Position, an explicitly white racist political organization. So who is Mr. Ward trying to kid?

But the mis-representation of Martin Luther King goes further. Some recently published articles are being cited to point out that at one time in the mid-1950's, during an intense period of violent attacks on civil rights activists, Martin Luther King kept guns for self-protection.

A shallow reading of the article (and they count on that) would suggest that King would have endorsed today's pro-gun rights activism. What is ignored or marginalized is the fact that over time, Dr. King moved further and further in the direction of complete non-violence, and eventually renounced guns altogether.

The point of this story being shared at this exact moment is clearly to attempt to overshadow and implicitly belittle King's monumental later commitment to non-violence. It is also meant to ridicule people that think King was always completely against violence and guns - as if to say, "ha ha, wrong again you naive liberals. King appreciated the value of a gun just as much as any gun rights supporter, until he so foolishly went in the wrong direction."

It is amazing indeed to see hard-line conservative writers twisting themselves into knots to try to make this argument work (as, for example, when their argument forces them to come down on the same side as the radical Black Panthers of the 1960's.). But it fails because it so obviously tries to re-define King by extracting one little slice of his vast and complex life and using it out of context to score a political point.

The fact is, it is central to understanding King to know that his ideas about non-violence evolved over time. His eventual renunciation of guns and violent action was an amazing accomplishment in his life. At the same time he was showing that like any intelligent person, he was capable of changing his views when presented with credible new ideas. The life and work of Gandhi were very powerful and credible indeed. Encountering, learning and absorbing Gandhi gradually changed King's life, in a dramatic way. This is the rest of the story, and the failure to tell it in relation to the story of his earlier gun ownership is not just willfully ignorant, but  intellectually dishonest and disrespectful. For more on how Dr. King's indeas developed, read this excellent article:

This leads me to a related observation: one cannot in good conscience ignore the racism that continues to assert itself in our country.

The clues are sometimes subtle, as in this news report from ABC's 20/20 on the "myths" of gun control.. Notice at about 2:30, when the scene changes to a prison, and the color of the skin of the people on camera makes a point without needing any words.

But sometimes the racism is so blatant it is sickening, especially when, as in Mississippi, it is occurring against children, perpetrated by authorities in the schools, the police and the judicial system.

It makes me think that gun rights advocates ought to look with great suspicion on the political motivations of their leadership, and their willingness to partner with racists while they pretend to sympathize with Dr. King.

So where does Truth Dots stand on gun rights issues? Well as always, I stand outside of either-or.

On the one hand, it seems futile to support greater governmental involvement in restricting gun ownership, when our government reserves the right to wield vast amounts of the most destructive weaponry in the world, and directs our military to kill with impunity. But we are stuck there, aren't we, because we willingly give our government that power. In fact we are conditioned to think of violence as heroic and even patriotic, as long as it's directed by the institutional "us," the good guys.

Here is another area where Dr. King's position gradually became unequivocal, and in 1967 he took the exceptionally bold step of publicly condemning the U.S. government's perpetration of violence around the world as well as at home. This is another aspect of King's legacy that is willfully neglected and even intentionally distorted by many. But in the year before he died he made it quite clear what he thought.

There is no better symbol of governmental hypocrisy than President Obama himself. Obama enjoys being the beneficiary of King's civil rights legacy, and clumsily quotes King, incorrectly and out of context, to improve his own image. But Obama's record of commanding violent and destructive military actions goes against everything King stood for. In an even more bizarre twist, during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (for which he had done literally nothing to deserve), Obama both cited King as an influence and utterly repudiated him in the same speech.

I broke this down in more detail in my earlier post:

On the other hand, I have heard so many times that 99% of all gun owners are patriotic, responsible, well trained, full of wisdom and common sense. It is pretty easy to see that this is not really so cut and dried. I'm not talking about anyone I know, of course. But I am sure this, this, this and this barely scratch the surface of the large numbers of angry, ignorant and careless people, many of whom are in positions of influence and authority, who insist on carrying guns. This troubles me greatly, and that feeling is amplified by adding in the possibility of racist attitudes and emotional instability into the stew.

Am I exaggerating? I don't know, what do you think? When you have an authority figure like this ex-military/ex-police chief/professional weapons trainer going on YouTube, vowing to take to the streets and start killing people in the name of preserving his 2nd amendment rights and urging others to do the same, I think I have a point.

I don't have a problem with anyone claiming their constitutional rights. What I object to is the way people on both "sides" of this issue constantly respond and react out of fear. Indeed, we are constantly being pushed by authority figures and the media to believe we only have two choices: support one position, or be very afraid of what will happen. You must support unrestricted right to carry guns - the only alternative is to cower in fear. Or you must support greatly expanded government restrictions on guns, or else - that's right, cower in fear.

This choice is phony. It dis-empowers us and it denies the human capacity for creative, innovative thinking, for compassion and courage. We must move past this fake either-or paradigm and stand up for the highest spiritual and ethical principles at every level, starting from the personal to the family and community, instead of expecting our society's institutions to somehow change the way they've always been, just because we demand it.

Bob Koehler gives us a window into one powerful approach to this:

But there are a million ways, big and small. Find your own way. And always, always refer to Martin Luther King himself, not other people's mis-interpretations of him.

The Air Force Global Strike Command wants you to know that Martin Luther King would be proud of them for overcoming racial, cultural and religious differences in order to "ensure perfection as we maintain and operate... the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal." 

Well that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, how about you?


  1. Each time I read through your blog posts, I get a deeper appreciation for your creativity. I know you as a musician, yet as a writer you stand out just as well.

    Regarding the topic, I don't have much to say as I generally ignore some of the ridiculous things (like the characters and federal institutions of which you speak) that we see in the news. I choose to honor MLK as simply a man that cared, is still relevant, and was taken off this world much too soon.

    Take some time and write a book. It's clear you care deeply. I'd buy it, whether I disagreed with your premise or not. You are a good man, Ben Sherman!

  2. Fantastic insights, Ben. I will go back and explore all the links and I encourage others to do so as well. Thanks for taking the time to bring the info to us!