Historians are appalled by the commercialization of MLK Day

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Robert Buzzanco is a Professor of History, University of Houston.

Every year around this time, Americans shower Martin Luther King, Jr. with love. Since 1986 his birthday has been a national holiday, providing all of us with a chance to learn more about him. School kids get exposed to the nature of African American life under apartheid in the South; symposia and talks are given discussing King’s legacy; King’s experiences are examined under the lens of current racial tensions; stores can have MLK Day sales; and the marketing opportunities are endless.


Get your “I Have a Dream” fortune told at a 1-800 number; make a cake with “Batter from a Birmingham Jail”; drink an “I’ve Been to the Mountain Dew Top”; if you’re lost, use the “Where Do We Go From Here” GPS; play in the “Edmund Pettus Bridge Tournament”; get a lottery ticket for the “SNCC Six” game, where you win if you rub off the names of a half-dozen leaders of the sit-in movement . . . and so it goes on. (As I write this, a TV ad has just come on for the “Joseph A. Bank Martin Luther King Day Sale” and I’ve learned that ESPN is airing a national MLK Day NBA game).


Surely King deserves as much recognition as possible. He gave his life for the cause of civil rights and that legacy remains vital to discussions of race in the U.S., now more than any time in the past several decades in the aftermath of Ferguson, Baltimore, and hundreds of incidents of cops killing African Americans.


But national holidays serve another purpose as well—instilling a sense of national pride and, if needed, obscuring the past. We celebrate Christopher Columbus Day even though he perpetuated a genocide (a difficult reality to accept even for a proud Sicilian-American). King’s birthday has a political purpose as well. By celebrating it, the country engages in a weekend of self-congratulation and pride over its triumph over racial separation and violence.


We can pay tribute not just to the triumph of King and his associates but to the national consensus that developed, at least north of the Manson-Dixon Line (as Gil Scott-Heron called it), that segregation had to end and civil rights had to be extended to all Americans. We hail the victory of inclusion over apartheid. Whites can feel good about their open-mindedness and African Americans (to a much greater degree than Italians and Sicilians celebrating Columbus Day), can be proud that one of their icons, actually the icon, reached the historical mountaintop and is recognized as one of the greatest Americans ever.


But MLK Day also enables us to avoid a lot of uncomfortable truths, and that’s the point often of honoring someone or making his/her life an “official” celebration (Pete Seeger always pointed out that “The Internationale” was ruined when it became the anthem of the Communist movement). With Martin Luther King Day, whites can feel good about their open-mindedness and commitment to social justice, and African Americans can be proud that the civil rights movement led to acceptance within the American system. Martin Luther King Day, then, has become not just a commemoration of the struggle of African Americans but a celebration of the market as Blacks became full participants in American capitalism, and businesses big and small can use that hook to bring in consumers during the third weekend of January every year. King, who was often violently repressed in life, has been commodified in death.


Lost in the observance of MLK’s life is the reality of many of his views, in particular his opinions on the economy, equality, war, and the need for militant action against the state and its ruling class. MLK embodied all the traits we honor on his day, but, unknown to most and certainly not celebrated, he offered a caustic, biting, and often radical critique of American society and politics, especially directed at those who ran the country and its economy. It’s not in the interests of many people to discuss the entirety of King’s life. King’s attention and focus on class issues was a challenge to the class of oligarchs that ruled America. But in many ways, it defined what he did almost as much as his commitment to civil rights. In four key areas, below, MLK offered a direct challenge to the state and ruling class on issues other than race in the south: the economy, the Vietnam War, the Olympics, and Poverty....




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