Hours after Coretta Scott King died, President Bush led off the State of the Union address by praising her as “a beloved, graceful, courageous woman who called America to its founding ideals and carried on a noble dream.” For good measure, at the end of his speech, Bush reverently invoked the name of her martyred husband, Martin Luther King Jr.
The president is one of countless politicians who zealously oppose most of what King struggled for — at the same time that they laud his name with syrupy words. It wouldn’t be shrewd to openly acknowledge the basic disagreements. Instead, Bush and his allies offer up platitudes while pretending that King’s work ended with the fight against racial segregation.
Now that Dr. King’s widow is no longer alive, the smarmy process will be even easier: Just praise him as a beloved civil rights leader, as though the last few years of his life — filled with struggles for economic justice and peace — didn’t exist. Ignore King’s profound challenge to the kind of budget priorities and militarism holding sway today.
On Tuesday night, the president was eager to seem like a fervent admirer of Martin Luther King. But the next day, in the same House chamber where Bush spoke, his administration pushed through a vicious budget measure that will slash $39 billion in spending — mostly for student loans and Medicaid for the poor — over the next five years.
Nearly 38 years ago, Dr. King was killed in Memphis while leading the Poor People’s Campaign for an economic bill of rights. He’d been accusing Congress of “hostility to the poor.” The federal government, King pointed out, was appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity” — but “poverty funds with miserliness.”
Today, a slick rhetorical formula enables current generations of such miserly politicians to keep praising the legacy of Martin Luther King while sticking knives into it.
Such duplicity is facilitated by a baseline of media coverage that automatically recycles the truncated versions of history promoted by the politicians who dominate Washington. At least dimly, those political hacks understand a key axiom described by George Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
Don’t want to deal with calls for progressive change in the nation’s economic power structures? Then don’t mention Martin Luther King’s statement, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Don’t want to acknowledge King’s assessment of global class war? Then just keep referring to his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech while carefully bypassing his later oratory about “capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.”
Want to keep King boxed as scarcely more than a Jim Crow foe? Then ignore his fierce opposition to the Vietnam War and his broader denunciations of what he called “the madness of militarism.”
President Bush has no tactical interest in criticizing the positions that were central to Dr. King’s final years. Instead, aided by media eagerness to sanitize King’s political evolution, Bush and his right-wing compatriots pose as admirers of King while they desecrate his spirit every chance they get.
After Coretta Scott King died, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund said: “I’m concerned that people don’t take her passing as an opportunity to further antique the causes that she and her husband and others stood for.” Theodore Shaw added, “Anybody who thinks that work is over is either terribly ignorant or willfully blind.”
Whatever his blend of ignorance and intentional evasion, President Bush is a leader of forces striving to roll back the King legacy of activism for social justice and peace. Sadly, the news media continue to be part of that retrograde political process — whitewashing instead of informing.
NORMAN SOLOMON is the author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.