Martin Luther King Day with Trump
The holiday will be presided over by a President who scarcely seems to comprehend King’s principles.
By Jelani Cobb
On April 8, 1968, Representative John Conyers, from Detroit, marched through down-town Memphis with Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Harry Belafonte, and thou-sands of people who had come to that city from across the country.
Four days earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot and killed there, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, and a fugue of disbelief and despair hovered over the crowd as it continued down the road that King had travelled. The march served as a momentary validation of King’s work, but Conyers hoped to craft a more enduring one. That week, he introduced legislation in the House of Representatives that would make King’s birthday, Jan. 15, a national holiday. It languished in committee.
Two months after the assassination, Coretta Scott King founded the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, in Atlanta. It was intended to serve as a well-spring for works of the type to which her husband had dedicated his life, but it was quickly deployed in a secondary mission: to lobby for the holiday, which she later described as “a day of interracial and intercultural coöperation and sharing.”
In 1971, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King had led, delivered to Congress a petition bearing three million signatures in support of the effort. In 1973, Harold Washington, an Illinois state representative who was later elected the first Black mayor of Chicago, sponsored a bill that made his state the first to recognize the holiday. A handful of other states followed, but there was little federal momentum. Coretta Scott King kept up pressure on elected officials, writing, speaking, and testifying twice before congressional committees.
In 1979, a House bill failed by five votes, even though President Jimmy Carter had endorsed it. King then enlisted the aid of Stevie Wonder, who composed “Happy Birthday,” a jaunty bit of agit-pop that included the lines “I never understood / how a man who died for good / could not have a day that would / be set aside for his recognition.” Finally, in 1983, a bill written by Representatives Jack Kemp, a Republican, and Katie Hall, a Democrat, passed in the House. In the Senate, Jesse Helms, who had denounced the 1964 Civil Rights Act as “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress,” tried, unsuccessfully, to have the bill, which was sponsored by Edward Kennedy, sent back to committee. Undaunted, Helms moved to have King’s F.B.I. files declassified, so that the Senate might explore the specious claim that he was a Communist stooge. In a fit of anger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan threw a copy of Helms’s documents to the floor of the Senate, denouncing them as “filth.” The bill passed by a vote of 78 to 22, and President Ronald Reagan, despite initial reluctance, signed it into law, in November of 1983, declaring that Martin Luther King, Jr., Day would be celebrated every year on the third Monday of January.
It had taken 15 years for Conyers’s original gesture to become a legislative reality, a journey that reflected a growing national acceptance of King’s ideals of pacifism and racial and economic equality, and a posthumous validation of his approach to social change. Nevertheless, King Day has occupied an awkward niche in the progression of American commemorations.
. It was not fully recognized in all the states until 1999—New Hampshire was the last. Currently, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi also celebrate the birth of Robert E. Lee on the day set aside for King.
The awkwardness persists on other levels. For an activist to be honored by a government, even one hoping to recognize that activist’s principles, is an inherently contradictory event. On King’s seventy-fifth birthday, in 2004, President George W. Bush, mired in a disastrous war in Iraq, took the time to lay a wreath at King’s tomb, in Atlanta. A police barricade surrounded the President, yielding a tableau of antiwar demonstrators being kept away from the tomb of a pacifist, in deference to a man overseeing a war. In 2009, the holiday fell on January 19th, a day before the Inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African-American President. The proximity of those events suggested a kind of moral momentum, a verification that the will toward democracy wins out in the long run.
Next year, Donald Trump will preside over a holiday dedicated to a man whose principles he scarcely seems to comprehend. In a speech that King delivered in 1967, in Atlanta, he condemned the Vietnam War and warned against what he called “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.” All three figured prominently in Trump’s Presidential campaign. Moreover, in 1973 the Department of Justice sued Trump Management, of which Trump was the president, for refusing to rent apartments to African-Americans. Specifically, the government charged that the company had violated the Fair Housing Act—a landmark piece of legislation passed in 1968, partly in tribute to King’s desegregation work. Now Trump, instead of calming the racial fires that he stoked during the campaign, has opted for private meetings with B-listers of black life: Don King, Ray Lewis, Jim Brown—a coalition of the compromised.
King’s insights into our society have never been more critical. In 1961, he declined an invitation from President John F. Kennedy to attend his Inauguration, but two weeks later he gave a speech outlining the ways in which Kennedy might use legislation, executive orders, and the moral authority of the Presidency to diminish racial discrimination. He closed by quoting a line from a 1947 report issued by the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, established by Harry Truman: “The United States is not so strong, the final triumph of the democratic ideal not so inevitable that we can ignore what the world thinks of us or our record.”
The divided bounty of America is such that it is a place where King was both hailed and spat upon; where he wielded influence over a President and was hounded by federal investigators; where he was afforded official accolades and was murdered on the balcony of a nondescript motel. Now, at the outset of this Presidency, King’s words to Kennedy warrant repeating. His ideals have survived him, but they have inherited the same unreconciled, and maybe irreconcilable, status. In 2009, the King holiday pointed to how far we had come. This year, it highlights the fact that we’ve arrived at a place where the familiar landmarks are missing. The Memphis marchers in 1968 held one advantage: they knew the road they were going down.