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King for a Day: the Rest of the Year, Not So Much

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Since 1986, Americans have observed the third Monday of January as a federal holiday: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Schools and communities put on marches and commemorative events.  Some workers (sadly not including most of the working poor of all races to whose advancement King dedicated his life) get the day off.

It’s an election year, so we can expect bombardment by politicians’ pledges of allegiance to this or that sub-set of Dr. King’s values.

Republicans will piously assure us that they hew to King’s dream of “a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Then they’ll get back to finding new ways to keep African-Americans from voting.

Democrats will highlight their support for voting rights and likely also name-check Dr. King’s final effort, the “Poor People’s Campaign,” even as they inveigh against the gun rights that made the civil rights movement possible and against the emerging sharing economy that’s freeing and empowering America’s working poor without any help from government.

Neither party’s prominent presidential candidates will likely address themselves to Dr. King’s thoughts on war and peace. The Democrats have already driven their only peace candidate, Lincoln Chafee, from the race, and on the GOP side Rand Paul’s mildly non-interventionist campaign is on life support.

King opposed the great American war of his public life, the war in Vietnam, rightly referring to the US government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

What would he think of a Democratic Party whose standard-bearers (not to mention the first African-American president!) never met a war they didn’t like, or of a Republican Party whose front-runners are so intent on fomenting war with Iran that they’d rather leave American prisoners in Iranian hands than bring them home,  and posture over the Iranian release of American naval personnel caught out in a covert operation in Iranian waters as if that constituted Iran provoking the US rather than the other way around?

I was less than two years old at the time of Dr. King’s assassination. He’s never been anything but a larger-than-life historical figure to me. Nonetheless it offends me that nearly 50 years after his death he’s become a mere plaster saint, periodically and faux-prayerfully invoked by competing political factions who want to traffic on his popularity without bothering to live his values.  It should offend you too.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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