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January 27, 2005

I Keep Having the Same Dream

I hadn't griped about it this year, but for several years I used to complain fairly vociferously about the lack of publically available works by Martin Luther King Jr. I think about this in consideration over several commentaries about copyright and civil rights.

Year in and year out the same video and the same soundbites from King. It has become tiresome. So when the Stanford Papers Project was announced several years ago, I jumped for joy. Too soon. As I looked closer, I recognized that the King heirs had put a contractual headlock on the papers. They were going to dribble them out for years to select groups, for money. So while I and other battlers on the fresh fields of the internet trying to homestead some black cultural space, we would have liked to have quoted King, citing him as relevant to the day. No such luck. We in the general unwashed public couldn't get at it. Justice delayed is justice denied.

And so King has, in certain parts of the intenet, been dropped from the discussion. I speak specifically about the Affirmative Action debates of a few years ago. We had individuals like Ward Connorly and Clint Bolick suggesting that King would have never been a supporter of Affirmative Action. All we ever had was the same tired quote, as if King had only considered the question for the few seconds it must have taken to write it.

"A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro"

Consider Professor Randall's web page. Not much there from King. Everybody claims him, nobody knows him. And the above quote is just about as much as anyone ever heard.

NPR has done as much, I think, is as possible to give King to the masses, but that is hardly useful for anyone who wishes to do more than tip their hat and acknowledge King. Even the Wikipedia is stifled.

On the other hand, if King's significance to America can be reduced to the few thousand of his own words in only five speeches, then we know all we need to know. Until his life's work is liberated, the rest is just spin.

Posted by mbowen at January 27, 2005 09:35 AM

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Make sure Justin Levine sees this piece, as he loves to rail against copyright abuse. I've long had the impression that King's family wants to have it both ways. When the issue is whether or not to have MLK Day as a holiday, MLK is as all-American as apple pie, had no specific view on affirmative action, and dagnabit, anyone who doesn't want his name on a holiday must be a racist who wants a return to Jim Crow. But once Republicans actually believe that and start using King's words to argue against affirmative action, well, that's gone too far. Suddenly, it's "how dare you exploit OUR symbol for YOUR agenda."

As a society, we have to make up our minds. Either King represented a general opposition to all racism, which all anti-racist Americans can be expected to support, or he represented something else. If he was this country's all-purpose anti-racism guy, then conservatives have just as much of a right to use his words to argue against AA as liberals have to use them to argue for it. But if he represents a specific viewpoint on an issue that remains highly controversial to this day - such as either explicitly supporting or expolicitly opposing affirmative action - then maybe he shouldn't be national figure after all. Remembered, of course, but probably not given a national or state holiday, any more than we would declare a federal holiday called "Vote Republican Day."

Posted by: Xrlq at January 27, 2005 12:21 PM

The King family does want to have it both ways. That is to say that they want to use public space (particularly the holiday) to generate support for their vision...but at the same time they want to privatize the King legacy in order to generate wealth. I think there is something very conservative about the idea of using public goods to generate private wealth.

On rights and conservatism. People like Ward Connerly have the right NOW to use King's public speeches for ending Affirmative Action (a policy King supported until he died). No one has sued/arrested/slapped folks around over this.

The Old School response here is pretty simple. Stop whining about rights and just be prepared to take an intellectual beat down when you get it wrong. If you don't like being on the wrong side of the anti-racism equation, either change yourself, or use a new term.

Posted by: Lester Spence at January 27, 2005 01:33 PM

I think the restriction of King's work makes him into an 'all-purpose' symbol, and that's the problem. In the end, he's not living and can't respond, nor can any interpretation of the narrow slices of his legacy be trusted.

In the end there's no real King scholarship, amateur or professional, and it hurts everyone.

Posted by: Cobb at January 27, 2005 02:49 PM