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Editorial: Don’t just look at the comforting in MLK’s legacy

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses the Sunday Evening Club at Orchestra Hall in Chicago in 1965. Jack Dykinga/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses the Sunday Evening Club at Orchestra Hall in Chicago in 1965. Jack Dykinga/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses the Sunday Evening Club at Orchestra Hall in Chicago in 1965. Jack Dykinga/Chicago Tribune/TNS

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

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The last Martin Luther King Jr. Day of the Obama era couldn’t have better foreshadowed the changes coming in the next four years.

As the outgoing president marked the day of remembrance for one civil rights icon with a visit to a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter, a feud festered between another hero of the civil rights movement and the incoming executive, President-elect Donald Trump.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., told NBC’s Chuck Todd Saturday that he didn’t consider Trump a “legitimate president” and had no plans to attend the inauguration. Trump fired back at Lewis, a leader of the “Big Six” key organizers of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, attacking him on Twitter as “all talk, talk talk — no action or results.”

Given Lewis’ role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights, Trump’s criticism seems unfounded. What was even stranger was the business mogul’s praise a mere two days later on Twitter for another civil rights crusader, King, and “the many wonderful things he stood for.”

The seemingly arbitrary distinction Trump made between the dead King and the living John Lewis isn’t anything new. There’s a long-standing American tradition of taking activists’ radical legacies and putting them into innocuous, apolitical contexts — and King’s canonization is no exception.

Public perceptions of King shifted dramatically after his death. According to a 1987 Oakland University poll, 72 percent of Americans viewed King unfavorably in 1966 — two years before his death. That number shrunk to just 24 percent two decades later. The radical aspects of King’s message included positions on labor rights, the war in Vietnam and free access to birth control that were very much unpopular at the time. But time and intellectual laziness have made all of that fade behind an inoffensive facade that leaves everything out except for King’s commitment to nonviolence.

The differences between the real and the invented King became incredibly apparent this weekend. Mirroring Trump’s selective memory about civil rights activism, white actor Rob Schneider felt the need to explain to Lewis on Twitter that King would never “give in to his anger or his hurt.”

Schneider’s Martin Luther King is a far cry from the living, breathing man who marched with John Lewis. MLK was a human being, and just like any human being it would be unfair to expect him never to act out of anger or hurt. He represents exactly what it was that King himself warned against in his Letter from Birmingham Jail — a “white moderate” who “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

We might not consider it now, but King was politically polarizing in his lifetime.

Trump, Schneider and others who seek to co-opt his legacy should recognize why activism for what’s right isn’t always popular or safe. If they can’t, they shouldn’t claim to truly respect and honor his legacy.

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Editorial: Don’t just look at the comforting in MLK’s legacy