The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Exhausting Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy

President Biden walks away after a wreath laying at the tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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The president traveled Tuesday to Atlanta to deliver a speech on the sanctity of voting rights — a geographic choice that speaks to the reality that nothing about this democracy is assured. Nothing is certain. Georgia gave Democrats the edge in the Senate and it was critical in helping Joe Biden win the presidency. It is also the state where election officials have been under extended duress as Republicans demanded recounts, alleged fraud and passed new laws that made voting more of an obstacle course than a walk in the park.

Biden’s visit included a stop at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, a ceremonial laying of a wreath at the crypt of King and his wife Coretta Scott King, private time with their family and a visit to the historical Ebenezer Baptist Church where King was once senior pastor. Biden also spoke from the Atlanta University Center Consortium, an institute that straddles Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College, from which King graduated. On a day trip that only had the president on the ground for a few hours, there was an awful lot of MLK.

But then, there is always a lot of MLK whenever the subject turns to racial justice, equal opportunity and the dream of a colorblind society. Everyone lays claim to King’s legacy with such certitude that if as many people marched alongside him in the 1960s as have said they did, then there would have been virtually no one standing on the sidelines wielding batons and casting aspersions. The dream of which King spoke would be a reality. And the January holiday in his honor would be a celebration of the American experiment’s completion rather than a remembrance of a promise yet to be fulfilled. But we like our history pretty.

The president arrived in Atlanta with Vice President Harris and a group of Democratic lawmakers — none of whom were Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who seems to be the only Democratic senator who matters, never seems to want what his colleagues want or always seems to have issues with what they want or the speed with which they want it. Biden was also accompanied by activists seeking the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, legislation aimed at ensuring unencumbered access to the polls and minimum federal standards for the way in which elections are conducted. Opponents argue that election security needs to be ramped up to prevent fraud; and, they don’t want Washington setting rules about how local elections are run. Those differing points of view are muddied and tortured by no small number of conservatives who see ballot stuffing and other subterfuge even when there is no evidence it exists. It’s all stalled because of the filibuster, which requires 60 votes in the Senate for legislation to pass.

Biden calls for changing the filibuster in major voting rights speech

In the midst of this, MLK is inspiration, retort, rallying cry and protective cover. The civil rights leader’s name is the conservative rebuttal to concerns about systemic racism. King’s name is a love song for bootstrapping individualists. It’s akin to a glide path to a safe landing for anyone accused of trying to elevate themselves by diminishing others.

During his speech, the president remarked that King’s family had offered a kind of reprimand to those who use his name in vain: “It’s not enough to praise their father. They even said on this holiday, don’t celebrate his birthday unless you’re willing to support what he lived for and what he died for.”

The conservative attachment to MLK is often more romantic than that of his more direct heirs, who are the voting rights activists who have taken to the streets, who agitate for change, who do the hard work of organizing — some of whom decided not to attend Biden’s speech to underscore their exasperation, impatience and disillusionment with the president’s sense of urgency in seeing voting rights legislation passed.

As the memory of King has aged, it’s taken on a smooth-edged, golden hue. Quotations from his speeches have been memorialized in stone but they’ve also been repeated so often and with such disregard for context that they’ve taken on the depth and specificity of a daily horoscope. The words mean whatever you want them to mean.

King was only 39 years old when he died, and while he was more liberal than radical, it’s hard to imagine that he would be so revered if he were a 30-something activist today — a Black man marching in the streets and advocating for fair wages, voting rights, racial justice and a more equitable form of capitalism. He and his fellow protesters would likely be blamed for stirring the pot and creating upheaval in places where everything was just fine before they showed up spouting their un-American ideas — which is precisely what happened in his day.

Over time, King has been recast as a warmhearted preacher who just wanted everyone to get along and only the most base among us disagreed with him. Biden called out some of those wretched names as he was making his plea to lawmakers to stand on the right side of history.

“So I ask every elected official in America, how do you want to be remembered? The consequential moments in history, they present a choice,” Biden said. “Do you want to be on … the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy.”

But everyone sees themselves on the side of King. Everyone basks in the glow of his legacy. Few people see themselves as the moral equivalent of Connor, the segregationist head of Alabama public safety who loosed the dogs and opened fire hoses on civil rights activists. They see themselves under the heading of populists protecting the jobs, homesteads and rights of working-class America. They are not Davis, the leader of the Confederacy. They are proud Southerners protecting their history and heritage. They are not Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama as Black students tried to enter. They are concerned parents worried about critical race theory and fretting that their children will be made to feel bad for being White.

As Biden stood in the late afternoon sun, the background populated with young people, he argued for democracy’s future by appealing to the country’s sense of history. He made plain his desire to get rid of the filibuster so the stagnating legislation could pass. “I’ve been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress for the last two months,” he said. “I’m tired of being quiet.”

He pounded the lectern. He said “damn” and then backpedaled to “darn.” He warned of democracy’s fragility. And he invoked King’s name, forever hopeful that its glow isn’t so blinding that it can still enlighten.

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