The legacy of Martin Luther King: from civil rights to identity politics

Saturday 28 October, 14:0015:30, Cinema 3Intellectual life

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On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, 2017 seems a good year to reappraise the legacy of his most famous dictum. In his iconic ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, King stated: ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ But for all our reverence for this magnificent vision, King’s positive aspirations to eradicate racial difference and his commitment to equal treatment are now under strain.

Today, identity politics seems to have seized the reins from the civil rights movement – yet it represents the exact opposite to King’s call to judge people by the ‘content of their character’. Instead, judging by skin colour seems to be making a comeback, as illustrated by dubbing as racist those who argue for colour-blind policies or the radical demands for racially segregated safe spaces on US campuses.

For example, it is now far from unusual for universities to organise white-only, black-only or Latino-only retreats and away days. Columbia University offers a ‘students-of-colour leadership retreat’ for those who self-identify as ‘African/African-American/Black, Latino/Hispanic, Asian/Asian-American, Pacific Islander, Arab and Middle-Eastern, Native and Indigenous, and Multiethnic/ Multiracial’. Meanwhile, ‘white privilege’ and ‘white supremacy’ have become the target of campaigners. Students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London are demanding that figures such as Plato, Descartes and Immanuel Kant should be largely dropped from the curriculum because they are white, insisting that when studying philosophy ‘the majority of philosophers on our courses’ should be from Africa and Asia. Last year, responding to an article in USA Today by lawyer Oliver Thomas, who declared that ‘whites killed MLK’, David French, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, replied that the now fashionable notion of ‘guilt or innocence, vice or virtue, presumed from the colour of one’s skin’ was an insult to King’s memory.

Today’s social justice warriors – many of whom inevitably invoke King’s name – promote ideas that are diametrically opposed to the universalist philosophy that informed King’s work and are more prone to judge others based on essentialising features, biological and cultural determinants, rather than character, exactly what the civil rights movement sought to transcend, while eradicating difference has given way to compulsory celebration of difference. For at least two of King’s children, the future envisioned by the father has yet to arrive: ‘I don’t think we can ignore race’, says Martin Luther King III, while Bernice King doubts her father would seek to ignore differences: ‘When he talked about the beloved community, he talked about everyone bringing their gifts, their talents, their cultural experiences’, she says. ‘We live in a society where we may have differences, of course, but we learn to celebrate these differences.’ So if King’s own children are prepared to update his dream for the modern world, should we all?

And what of King himself? Rumoured to have been a Republican voter, and steeped in a deeply religious culture that many today would now find uncomfortable, he has now become a sanitised figure. Is it time we assess who he really was? What would Martin Luther King make of today’s intersectional politics of identity, with its renewed emphasis on racial thinking? Perhaps the key to his legacy is to ensure that King’s speech is read more widely beyond what might become a cliché and popularise its broader sentiments, captured in a lesser known quote: ‘The end we seek is… a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.’ What can we learn from Martin Luther King today?