Fifty years ago Wednesday, Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and spoke eloquently of his dream that a nation divided by race would one day find unity in character, not color.
If that vision remains elusive today – as it too often does – much of the fault rests with some of the people who would claim King's mantle as a civil rights leader while rejecting the moral authority, integrity and consistency that made King's movement so powerful and persuasive.
Of course, the presence of “Obama States of America” flags at Saturday's golden anniversary rally in Washington made it clear to anyone paying attention that the event wasn't really about civil rights or even King himself, but contemporary liberal politics masquerading as history.
But it was history of the most cynical, revisionist and dangerous sort – the kind of history that seeks to shape the future by misrepresenting the past. Did King really die, as former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi suggested, for a “living wage,” paid medical leave for workers and affordable child care so “the power of women can be unleashed”?
Did King really die to ensure citizenship to illegal immigrants, as Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of LaRasa (The Race), insisted?
My parents weren't bigots, but neither were they civil rights activists. They were simply traditionalist Christians who taught their kids to treat others as they would want to be treated themselves. Maybe that's why, even as a child growing up in the 1960s, King's dream of a colorblind society appealed to me. Perhaps it's also why I find efforts to highjack the civil rights movement in pursuit of goals antithetical to its original intent so distasteful.
Barack Obama has now been elected president of the United States twice in less than five years – irrefutable proof that, whatever pockets of racism may remain, they no longer represent an impermeable barrier to personal advancement and success. But you'd never know it from some of the responses to the King anniversary.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., suggested Obama's election has somehow brought America's latent racism to the surface, manifested in opposition to the president's agenda. “I saw the people who scream and shout about Obamacare. I saw the hatred that was in people's eyes,” he said. But since when does opposition to a politician's agenda equal “hate”?
Sadly, even Martin Luther King III seems joined the chorus of those who used a recent tragedy to suggest that nothing has really changed in 50 years.
“Too frequently,” he said, “the color of one's skin remains a license to profile, arrest and even to murder with no regard to the content of one's character.” But no one has credibly suggested that racism led volunteer neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman to shoot Florida teen Trayvon Martin last year, or the jury to free him. Whatever one thinks of the self-defense verdict, it hardly constitutes a “license to murder.”
The original civil rights movement was noble because it sought to correct a wrong by making certain America lived up to its own “created equal” creed. It was a goal that could appeal to disparate groups the way rules in a baseball game appeal to good and bad teams alike. The rules aren't supposed to guarantee victory; they're supposed to guarantee equal treatment. The outcome is determined by work, talent, luck – and “character.”
Those who claim to be King's successors risk their movement's credibility when they imply, by word or deed, that outcome matters more than opportunity – or that some people have a greater claim to “civil rights” than others.
Australian college student Christopher Lane and WWII veteran Delbert “Shorty” Belton had civil rights, too – but that didn't stop them from being brutally murdered earlier this month. Many of the same reporters and civil rights leaders who condemned the murder of the African-American Martin by “white Hispanic” Zimmerman have downplayed the racial angle of the Lane-Belton killings, even though at least one of Lane's alleged killers had made his hatred of whites well known.
Does that make their murders “hate crimes”? Not necessarily, and it's a dangerous thing to punish thought, in any case. But even though there was even less evidence that race motivated Zimmerman, our biracial president made it known Martin could have been his son – and expressed support, sympathy and comfort accordingly.
Being half white, Obama could have said the same about Lane. But hasn't.
And such blatant inconsistencies explain why, 50 years after King showed us the way, race continues to divide America.