The Persistent Distortion Of Memory

Happy birthday Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.

Now that’s out of the way, there’s the issue of his legacy and how it’s remembered; or more importantly how it’s distorted.

One such distortion is portraying the election of Barack Obama as a natural extension of Dr. King’s work – just watch documentaries about his life and legacy on the History Channel, for example, and they juxtapose images of Dr. King and Obama. Obama is as far from Dr. King’s vision as his Republican critics; like all politicians he’s a liar, as his speech he gave at last year’s unveiling of the MLK memorial revealed:

“Look at the faces here around you, and you see an America that is more fair and more free and more just than the one Dr. King addressed that day. We are right to savor that slow but certain progress -– progress that’s expressed itself in a million ways, large and small, across this nation every single day, as people of all colors and creeds live together, and work together, and fight alongside one another, and learn together, and build together, and love one another.”

Like all politicians, his words don’t exactly match reality. Just look at how he backtracked on his promise to shut down the Guantanamo prison – an institution Dr. King would decry – as well as keeping the Patriot Act on the books, signing into law the National Defense Authorization Act and carrying out assassinations abroad – including hits on American citizens – policies that go against the very non-violent principles upon which Dr. King based his work.

In addition, the drone assassination program that bolsters the Afghan occupation would’ve outraged the anti-war activist as well as the bank bailouts – while cities like Detroit continue to languish in poverty and decay – that would’ve made anti-poverty Dr. King a vocal opponent of the Obama administration. That isn’t progress; the proper word is stagnation.

But it doesn’t don’t stop there.

Right-wingers have tried to frame Dr. King as a Republican and a social conservative despite his well-documented support for democratic socialism while others claim he’d support the current administration’s militarism. Beyond the Lib-Con, however, is the one undying and annoyingly persistent distortion of Dr. King’s legacy; the portrayal of Dr. King as a supporter of Israel. It’s one shared by right-wing and liberal supporters alike, with the liberal view summed up by AFL-CIO VP Stuart Appelbaum:

“This year, U.S. Jews, like other Americans, will mark Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by remembering him as a powerful voice against racism and for civil rights. But, for Jews, Dr. King was also something else: a uniquely important ally in the fight against anti-Semitism and for a secure Israel.

Today, Dr. King’s close bond with the Jewish community is treated only as a small footnote of his life and work. But, toward the end of his life, Dr. King devoted significant time and energy to strengthening what were becoming increasingly strained ties between black Americans and U.S. Jews. One issue Dr. King was particularly concerned with was the growing mischaracterization of Zionism as racism.”

Did he? A piece by Fadi Kiblawi and Will Youmans published in the Electronic Intifada documented how King barely talked about the Middle East and that some quotes attributed to him by pro-Israel apologists may have been fabricated.

However, Appelbaum’s quotes don’t appear to be plagiarized, so we have to assume them to be true. In fact, a speech at the Concord Dr. King gave in 1968 to a Rabbinical assembly which Appelbaum references in his editorial did, in fact, occur. Appelbaum’s distortion is therefore not one of falsification of words, but an assumption that Dr. King’s support for Israel in the sixties was not only relevant to today’s world but even going so far as to assert that he would’ve maintained that support if he was still alive.

The fact is that peoples worldviews can – and often do – change over time. Two good examples of this kind of change would be Robert Spencer and David Horowitz; both used to be leftists – Spencer was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party and Horowitz was editor of Ramparts magazine and worked with the Black Panthers. Both are now prominent far right anti-Muslim activists.

It goes the other way, too – like Jimmy Carter, for example. As president, he held stewardship over the same neocolonial system as every president before and after has done regardless of party affiliation. Specifically, he once referred to the tyrannical Shah of Iran as an “oasis of stability in a sea of uncertainty” and helped create the Afghan mujahideen that the Reagan administration funded and which eventually spawned Al-Qaeda. Over the years Carter became known as a “humanitarian,” going so far as writing a book called “Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid,” in which he declared that “Palestinians are deprived of basic human rights, their land has been occupied, then confiscated, then colonized by the Israeli settlers,” a policy in which every president – including Carter – bankrolled.

I believe that when it comes to Palestine, Dr. King would’ve traveled along a similar political trajectory; after all, if a former president can make such criticisms of the Jewish state, then someone who opposed – from day one – apartheid, poverty and a war of occupation would have eventually embraced the cause of Palestine as his own, since it encompasses all three of those characteristics.

That he embraced Israel in his time reflected certain realities that don’t exist today; namely, Jewish support for civil rights at a time when segregation was still in force. While that phase of the civil rights struggle is over, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – along with subsequent invasions of Lebanon and the more recent wars in both Lebanon and Gaza – would no doubt have altered Dr. King’s views on Israel.

In all likelihood, Dr. King’s views would have evolved over time as he recognized the Palestinian struggle against the occupation as his own – a struggle against injustice. We must therefore be ever vigilant in protecting Dr. King’s true identity and not allow liberals, conservatives and Zionists alike to hijack and distort his legacy for their ends.

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