Analysis: Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and January 6 offer two competing visions for America


It’s an annual ritual on the iconic civil rights leader’s birthday: pundits offer provocative interpretations of King to make him relevant to a contemporary audience.

But those commentators won’t have to work as hard this year to explain why King matters. Anyone who wants to remind Americans of the urgency of King’s message can now quote January 6, 2021.

January 6 and January 15: These duel dates are only nine days apart, yet they offer two radically different views of what the United States stands for.

For part of America, January 6 is a “1776 moment,” a great patriotic uprising. Another part of the country celebrates King’s birthday on January 15 and his dream of a beloved community – a “world in which people of all identities are equal and included.”

Both dates present the country with a choice:

Are we going to be a nation of We the People or We the Whites?

The question may seem abstract, but if you take a closer look at what the two men did in their defining moments in Washington, the differences are clear.

Consider the contrasts between King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” on August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial and Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6 at the Ellipse.

King drew a peaceful, interracial crowd to Washington and spoke of a dream that united “all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants…”

Trump drew a mostly white crowd that included members of white supremacist groups, a man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt and people who erected a noose for the lynching on the Capitol grounds.

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which helped make the United States a true democracy for the first time.

Trump’s speech directly preceded an attack on Congress that killed five people and injured many others and sparked a wave of voter suppression laws that weakened American democracy.

King attracted a cross section of religious leaders, activists and celebrities like singer Joan Baez, future Congressman John Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Charlton Heston.
Trump drew “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley, a man who paraded a Confederate flag through the Capitol and others who smeared poop in the building’s hallways.

A crowd inspired the country. Another defaced the United States Capitol.

King had a dream. Trump had a crowd.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump demonstrate in the rotunda of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

King’s radical belief in democracy

The Jan. 6 marker may help revitalize interest in King’s holiday in another way. More people might pay attention to an underrated aspect of King’s legacy: his passionate defense of democracy.

Our system of government could use some inspired defenders right now. President Biden this month called for the passage of new voting rights legislation that would make it harder to steal elections. But a wall of Republican opposition and at least two Democratic senators who reject any filibuster reform have so far condemned the bill.
King lived in a time when filibuster was commonly used to deny black equality. NAACP leaders once fumed that the filibuster was the legislative equivalent of a lynching.
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they attempt to storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

King today offers suffrage advocates a model for why voter suppression laws betray democracy.

“Until I firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself. I can’t decide, it’s made for me. enact – I can only submit to the edict of others,” he said in a 1957 speech titled “Give us the vote and we will transform the South.”

This speech by King was not considered revolutionary at the time. But January 6 now makes King’s belief in democracy seem, well, radical.

Most Americans no longer see their country as a beacon of democracy in the world. A recent Pew Research Center poll revealed this statistic: 72% of Americans say the United States was a good model of democracy for other countries to follow, but hasn’t been in recent years.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., center, arms raised, walks along Constitution Avenue with other civil rights protesters to the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.
Many Americans believe the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election, which saw record turnout, was robbed. About half of Republicans describe the actions of the Capitol crowd as “patriotism” or “defending freedom.” Authoritarian governments in China, Russia and Brazil are on the rise and democracy is on the decline worldwide.

How can Americans preach to other countries about democracy when so many of their own citizens no longer believe in it?

That’s why King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is more important than ever. Nowhere will you find a more eloquent defense of multiracial democracy. It is widely regarded as the greatest political speech of the 20th century because, in part, it is deeply unoriginal. King was like a master DJ – mixing and sampling all of the nation’s founding material to create something new.

He quotes or alludes to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address. He ended the speech by evoking an African-American spirituality. He turned a political rally into a church revival for democracy.

A crowd gathers at the Lincoln Memorial to hear King and other March on Washington speakers in 1963.
“We consistently sideline or ignore Dr. King’s commitment to core democratic values,” said Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Parting the Waters.” “He planted one foot in American heritage, the other in scripture, and both in nonviolence.”

King’s “Brotherhood Table” Still Not Made

Here’s another part of King’s vision that now seems radical after Jan. 6: his belief in racial integration.

His “I Have a Dream” speech reflected his belief that perpetual racial conflict should not be his country’s fate. His hope is reflected in one of the speech’s most famous lines:

“I dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”

Voting rights activists prepare for arrest on Capitol Hill in Washington on October 28, 2021.
Nearly 60 years later, this fraternity table is still waiting for other guests to settle down. Public schools, neighborhoods and worship communities across the country remain largely racially segregated.

When was the last time you heard a political or civil rights leader speak passionately about racial integration?

The reasons for this are complex, but it boils down to this: there are never enough white Americans – including progressive whites – who are willing to embrace integration when it comes to accepting people. not white in their backyard.

President Lyndon Johnson, a contemporary of King, had a word about what many Americans would experience if they remained separated. He said the country would suffer a “denouement”.

The January 6 violence seemed like a snapshot of that outcome. Has the news ever been so grim? America has more guns than ever, experts warn of an impending civil war and polls show a growing number of Americans saying “political violence” is justified.

King knew what it was like to live in a country where violence and racial antagonism seemed ineradicable.

Even so, he still declared that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway on December 10, 1964.
“I refuse to accept despair as the final answer to the ambiguities of history,” he said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech a year after the March on Washington.

“I believe unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the last word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

These are words that uplift the soul. How much will they mean, however, if the United States becomes a performative democracy – a country with the veneer of fair elections but ruled by white minority rule.

If that happens, January 6 — not January 15 — will be a truer reflection of what the United States stands for.

And what King said in 1963 will no longer be a dream. It will be a mirage.


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