What Trump doesn't get about Martin Luther King Jr.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have celebrated his 89th birthday on Monday. This year, the federal hol...

Posted: Jan 15, 2018 9:51 AM
Updated: Jan 15, 2018 9:51 AM

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have celebrated his 89th birthday on Monday. This year, the federal holiday in his honor, which takes place every third Monday of January, falls on his actual birthday, January 15.

And since April will mark the 50th anniversary of King's death, it is worth remembering, now more than ever, how he lived.

President Donald Trump's symbolic affirmation of the King holiday on Friday came amid global condemnation for his disparaging and racially inflammatory statements regarding Haitians and Africans the day before.

Trump's public praise of King is belied not only by his private words but also by his deeds. King is not widely remembered as a policy expert, but he should be. Federal civil rights, voting rights and open housing legislation all passed, in part, through the pressure he brought to bear on Congress, presidents and wider democratic institutions.

Indeed, Trump's latest burst of rhetorical violence against non-whites serves as an important reminder of the work that needs to be done in order to fulfill King's dream of a "beloved community" free of racial oppression, economic injustice and war. The King holiday offers a moment for the nation to reflect on the meaning of American democracy, citizenship and justice.

In 1968, King celebrated his birthday against a climate of political tension, racial strife and economic injustice strikingly familiar to our own time. King -- then the world's leading social justice mobilizer -- tapped into grassroots anti-poverty efforts to help organize a "Poor People's Campaign" and stage a "camp-in" in the nation's capital. Its aim was to push Congress to pass meaningful anti-poverty legislation.

King's adversary-turned-ally Bobby Kennedy approved of these plans, telling Marian Wright Edelman (the future founder of the Children's Defense Fund) to bring the poor to Washington so that the nation could see the truth about poverty with their own eyes.

King recognized economic justice as an issue capable of binding together disparate groups toward a unified movement for radical democracy, one that could lift up farm workers in California, rural whites in Appalachia, sharecroppers in Mississippi, Native Americans living on reservations and urban residents confined to ghettoes. Today, the Trump administration's efforts to institute work requirements for Medicaid recipients stands in stark contrast to King's efforts toward economic justice, which promoted a guaranteed income for the poor, health care, jobs, education and an end to racial segregation in housing and public schools.

King's plans to coordinate a caravan of the poor, representing the nation's multi-cultural and multi-racial makeup, found natural allies among Latino farm workers, Native Americans, poor whites and mothers on welfare who schooled him on the intricacies of federal policy in ways that humbled and enlightened him.

Throughout the early part of 1968, King traveled across the nation, delivering speeches against racial and economic injustice. The descriptions of hunger and want from black residents in Marks, Mississippi, moved King to tears -- so much so that he decided to headquarter the caravan destined for Washington in what he characterized as "the poorest county in the United States."

King imagined democracy as a living, breathing organism imperiled by the sickness of racism and the disease of poverty. He diverted precious energies from his plans to spend the summer in Washington to travel several times to Memphis, where he spoke in support of over 1,000 black garbage workers on strike for a living wage. He did not live to see the conclusion of the strike or spend time in "Resurrection City," the tent village that survived for two months in the nation's capital.

Undoubtedly, King would have been deeply disappointed by Trump's disparaging remarks against Haitians, immigrants and Muslims. King's extensive travels to India, Africa and Europe imbued in him a cosmopolitan sense of humanity he called "the world house."

For King, the concept of a "world house" moved beyond an ethnic- and tribal-based understanding of the international community toward an ethic of mutuality and interdependence. He believed that like a butterfly effect, what happened in the smallest corner of the world impacted the rest of humanity for good or ill.

Accordingly, King forged political alliances through personal connections. He argued that humanity's fate remained interwoven in a broader political and spiritual tapestry than widely acknowledged.

The most ironic part of King's legacy is that his holiday was signed into law on November 2, 1983, through bipartisan efforts by President Ronald Reagan, an eloquent conservative figure who publicly admitted to having disagreements with the civil rights leader.

The holiday did more than simply recognize King's individual accomplishments. It celebrated the civil rights movement's successful inclusion of the idea of racial justice and human rights as fundamental principles of American democracy.

But the holiday has also allowed us to hide from ourselves. King might not recognize himself in the uncomplicated, even timid, figure that much of the nation and the world celebrate today. The risk-taking King who defied presidents to protest war is often missing in our popular memory of him.

We must not forget the radical King, who marched shoulder to shoulder with garbage workers, locked arms with Black Power militants and lived in Chicago ghettoes in an effort to stimulate social change. And yet, the revolutionary King who proclaimed that America's greatness remained in "the right to protest for right" has all but vanished from public memory, replaced by generic platitudes about freedom and justice that can be claimed by anyone.

Through non-violent civil disobedience, King leveraged social-justice transformation in American civil society even when institutions, including the church, largely disagreed. King longed to change hearts, minds, public policy and laws, too. He viewed the political as personal and believed the reverse true as well, offering moral and political witness for reimagining an American democracy as a beacon, especially for groups left out of its original conception.

King's legacy will endure long past the Age of Trump. More importantly, it reminds us all that American power resides not in any fantasies of exceptionalism but in the souls of millions of ordinary people who risked their lives to reimagine the contours of freedom, democracy and citizenship.

King's revolutionary life, fearless love of the poor and wretched and uncompromising stance against war and violence offer hope for a better future. His life also provides a framework for resistance against rising levels of inhumanity, racism and injustice that he would find all too familiar today.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 313942

Reported Deaths: 7240
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto21580258
Hinds20330415
Harrison17879309
Rankin13594278
Jackson13429246
Madison10088217
Lee9970174
Jones8370163
Forrest7670152
Lauderdale7188241
Lowndes6387146
Lamar622486
Lafayette6184118
Washington5332133
Bolivar4801132
Oktibbeha462198
Panola4582106
Pearl River4506146
Marshall4435103
Warren4386121
Pontotoc420172
Monroe4107133
Union410076
Neshoba4030176
Lincoln3962110
Hancock378486
Leflore3493125
Sunflower335990
Tate333384
Pike3316105
Scott315773
Alcorn312768
Yazoo311469
Itawamba299777
Copiah296865
Coahoma295179
Simpson294988
Tippah288168
Prentiss279760
Adams278782
Marion269080
Leake267473
Wayne262641
Grenada261386
Covington258281
George247848
Newton246261
Winston227081
Tishomingo226667
Jasper221048
Attala214273
Chickasaw207757
Holmes188873
Clay185254
Stone182433
Tallahatchie178541
Clarke177980
Calhoun170532
Yalobusha164238
Smith162334
Walthall133945
Greene130533
Lawrence128524
Montgomery126742
Noxubee126734
Perry126338
Amite123042
Carroll121828
Webster114532
Jefferson Davis107033
Tunica105226
Claiborne102430
Benton99525
Humphreys96533
Kemper95728
Franklin83623
Quitman80716
Choctaw76318
Wilkinson67230
Jefferson65528
Sharkey50217
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 531404

Reported Deaths: 10985
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson765501522
Mobile41036805
Madison34789503
Tuscaloosa25788453
Montgomery24340589
Shelby23449249
Baldwin21154308
Lee15882171
Calhoun14511314
Morgan14306279
Etowah13843353
Marshall12232223
Houston10570281
Elmore10068205
Limestone9974151
Cullman9676194
St. Clair9661243
Lauderdale9427241
DeKalb8831186
Talladega8227176
Walker7241277
Autauga6926108
Jackson6814112
Blount6678137
Colbert6306134
Coffee5519119
Dale4838111
Russell441538
Chilton4296112
Franklin426082
Covington4129118
Tallapoosa4023152
Escambia393677
Chambers3573123
Dallas3551152
Clarke351161
Marion3122101
Pike310977
Lawrence300398
Winston274473
Bibb260964
Geneva250477
Marengo249564
Pickens234461
Barbour231057
Hale223077
Butler216069
Fayette212562
Henry188844
Cherokee185245
Randolph180542
Monroe177540
Washington167339
Macon159650
Clay156756
Crenshaw152557
Cleburne148941
Lamar142535
Lowndes138853
Wilcox127130
Bullock122841
Conecuh110529
Perry107726
Coosa107628
Sumter104732
Greene92534
Choctaw60724
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