It's interesting that Obama's praise of Ronald Reagan came several days before a holiday honoring a man whose vision for America truly transcended politics, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Reagan didn't support such a holiday - his famous "states' rights" proclamation in Neshoba County and his dismal record on civil rights issues showed that the Gipper wasn't a friend to the idea of racial equality. But back in 1983, when Congress knew that it had power over the executive and that an overwhelming majority in favor of a law meant that it would be passed anyway, the president capitulated to the Congress.
This is probably around when opponents to equality, both racial and economic, realized that making people hate King or his message would a Sisyphean task. So instead they set about to rewrite history and re-create Dr. King in their image, and thus tried to get the rest of us to scale back our dreams of what this country could be.
Several weeks after Ron Paul pleading on CNN that he was not racist (as if any of us can make that claim), his words about Dr. King still shock me, "Rosa Parks is one of my heroes. Martin Luther King is a hero, because they practiced the civil libertarian principle of civil disobedience and nonviolence." How did they suddenly become libertarians? How did King's radical vision get turned into a call to ignore the realities of race in America?
It didn't start with Ron Paul and he's definitely not going to be the last person to make such a claim. LiP magazine provides a sampling of some of this revisionist history, perpetuated by writers like Shelby Steele, Dinesh D'Souza, and John David Skrentny. And this revisionism was thrust back into the mainstream when an ad ran in 2006 claiming, despite his lack of party affiliation, the King was a Republican.
King's dream was reduced and sold to get votes. Sign of the times, I suppose.
But the holiday's history shows us that King's vision was not to fight ignorance with further ignorance, rather is sought to destabilize the very power structures that are now trying to reclaim it.
MLK Day itself was originally a union holiday - it was demanded first by the Transport Workers' Union in New York City to honor the man who fought on behalf of laborers. Over the next decade and a half, several other unions, from dressmakers to hospital workers, won the right to "honor a man they viewed as a working-class hero."
King's vision required that we not only to begin to see each other for who we are despite various axes of identity, but also to recognize that those axes exist, that they have power, and that getting rid of them requires more work than simply willing them away. From Why We Can't Wait:
Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but he should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.
Dr. King was shot in 1968 while supporting a sanitary public worker's union strike.
This may seem like small policy matters and details in his life, but they add up to help us see King's vision for America - not just one in which people are judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin, but one also where every person has an equal opportunity to achieve, one where the past must be acknowledged to create the future we want to see, one where hierarchy is criticized for maintaining privilege and restricting the potential of those who are at the bottom of it, one where we meet the needs of our brothers and sisters before we attend to our own because we know that working together for a common dream will make victory all that much better, and one where power doesn't perpetuate power because we've decided that it should be distributed among all people.
His vision wasn't practical, it wasn't a compromise, it didn't just demand political or legislative changes, it wasn't accomplished in his lifetime, and it still hasn't been accomplished in ours.
I've been amazed by both the American people's and the LGBT communities' inability to want, to want deeply and to want expansively, to have a vision of their own for the world they want to see that's more than what we've got now plus a few new laws. We are sitting at the precipice of great change, and yet we don't seem to have any leaders around who comprehend the magnitude of the time we're living in.
And maybe that's the way it's supposed to be for those who benefit from the way power currently acts. But let's follow Dr. King's example this Martin Luther King Jr. Day and dream big.