Defying Political Labels: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy

by | Jan 16, 2012 | Frontline

harry-jacksonOn Oct. 16, the new memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) was
finally completed. There was only one problem with the work: The
wrong words were carved on the statue. The tone of the phrase
misrepresented “the spirit” of the fallen leader. After a huge
controversy, the memorial leadership decided to change the writing on
the statue.

This change was legitimate. Unfortunately an illegitimate
expression occurred this past week. Politico reported that Tavis
Smiley had been disinvited from the 20th annual MLK luncheon, hosted
by the Peoria Civic Center. Why? Mr. Smiley has said publicly that
President Obama had not done enough for black Americans, which,
according to the center, upset some people. He was replaced by
reliable liberal Michael Eric Dyson.

In later interviews, Mr. Smiley noted that only a small handful of
the 1,500 ticket holders for the event complained about his comments,
resulting in his ouster from the luncheon. He also made it clear that
he supports President Obama, but as a journalist feels obligated to
hold him accountable for his actions in office. While I may disagree
with Mr. Smiley on some issues, I certainly agree that his honest
appraisal of President Obama’s performance should not disqualify
him from speaking at a luncheon honoring Dr. King.

In fact, Smiley’s dismissal from the event dishonors Dr. King’s
legacy of holding all political leaders accountable for their actions
and judging people based on their character, rather than their skin
color. As I have written before, this is yet another example of the
totalitarian attempts at thought control by leaders in the black
community who purport to speak for Dr. King and African-Americans in
general. We blacks who refuse to kowtow to the extreme left are not
only disinvited from events, but often publicly excommunicated from
our own race.

True students of history understand that Dr. King, during his
life, defied our current labels of “liberal” or “conservative.”
This holds true for both his personal sentiments as communicated in
his speeches and writings, as well as for the policies he advocated.
On social issues, he—like the vast majority of black Americans—was
unequivocally in line with conservative biblical teaching and
traditional American values. On economic and foreign policy issues,
some of his statements were so far to the left they would make
today’s liberals blush. It is impossible to say that either of the
two major political parties today has a monopoly on King’s legacy;
if anything, they are both failing to live up to it.

Since the days of slavery, there have been disagreements about how
to best advance African-Americans. At the turn of the 20th century,
both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois labored tirelessly for
the cause of bettering the prospects of newly freed slaves. President
Obama shares much in common with Du Bois: Both were born outside the
South and attended Harvard. Both attained prominence through
political activism and espoused a model of change based on the
leadership of the elite—Ivy-League educated policymakers in
President Obama’s case, and the “Talented Tenth” of Du Bois.

Washington, by contrast, was born in the South into the very heart
of Jim Crow America. He was educated at a historically black college
(Hampton Institute which later became Hampton University) and rose
from poverty to prosperity through entrepreneurship. Mr. Washington
wanted to promote the means for immediate progress among everyday
blacks. As the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama,
Washington’s primary focus was teaching the uneducated, unskilled
southern blacks to be self-reliant. This meant offering courses to
train black teachers, but also to train blacks for farming and other
less glamorous jobs that were available in the South at the time.

By contrast, Du Bois wrote in his essay “The Talented Tenth”
that he thought it most important to develop “the best of this race
that they may guide the mass away from the contamination and death of
the worst.” He felt that if middle-class blacks could receive an
Ivy League quality education, they would be able to lead the rest of
the black community to a more prosperous future.

In actuality, both Du Bois and Washington contributed immeasurably
to the advancement of black Americans. Although their approaches to
the problem seemed mutually exclusive and even contradictory at
times, both were necessary to overcome the oppressive aftermath of
slavery. Three generations later, Dr. King refused to be painted into
an ideological corner when addressing the challenges of the
segregated South. He enlisted both educated spokespersons as well as
everyday activists to accomplish the goal of equality for blacks in
the eyes of the law.

Today, black Americans face the challenges of failing schools,
broken homes, skyrocketing unemployment, and rates of AIDS and other
diseases that are well above the national average. It will take a
variety of approaches to effectively address these problems, and
African-Americans cannot afford to be shackled to the rhetoric of the
political left. We need to hear criticisms and solutions from all
over the ideological spectrum so that we can employ the best
approaches to improve education, restore families, reduce
unemployment and empower African-Americans to live healthy,
prosperous lives.

Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr. is the senior pastor
of
MT-JF-12Hope Christian Church, a 3,000-member congregation in the
Washington, D.C., area. He also serves as a regional bishop for the
Fellowship of International Churches. Additionally, Bishop Jackson is
the founder and president of High Impact Leadership Coalition, which
seeks to protect the moral compass of the nation by educating and
empowering churches, as well as community and political leaders. 

Bishop Jackson is the guest editor of the January-February 2012 issue of Ministry Today about social transformation.

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