Subverting Dr. King 

Has it really been 40 years since the death and martyrdom of Dr. Martin Luther King on that shattering April evening here in Memphis? So enduring is King's legacy, so eternal and forever timely is the message of his life, that domestic events in the four decades since that tragedy all seem to conflate into one basic narrative concerning a nation's attempts to reconstruct its very sense of being.

We have previously noted that it is far too limiting to refer to King as a civil rights figure. That he was, for sure, but at the time of his death in 1968 he was about to launch a national crusade for economic justice, a "Poor People's March" that would have flowed across racial boundaries and struck even deeper into the imperfections of a country forever determined to perfect — or at least improve — itself.

Ironically (or appropriately), America finds itself at yet another major crossroads in this election year of 2008. Each of the three remaining major candidates for president has a personal saga that corresponds to some fundamental portion of the nation's own story. Republican John McCain's candidacy asks us to re-examine the frontier of age and to reconsider the ordeal of Vietnam. Democrat Hillary Clinton sees herself — and is seen by many others — as carrying the banner of gender equality. But it is the campaign of her fellow Democrat, Barack Obama, that corresponds most closely to the spirit of Dr. King's dream, which, we all surely remember, foresaw a day when all Americans would be judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

It is no credit to Clinton that both she and her surrogates have chosen to invoke the issue of race and not character as a point of judgment too many times. The examples of this are literally too numerous to mention. But two of the most recent and most egregious seem too calculating to have been accidental. They are also demonstrably false in their assumptions. When former Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, acting on Clinton's behalf, insisted that Obama's success in the presidential race was due to his color and when Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, another Clinton backer, warned that Obama might not fare well among white voters in his state's key primary, both distorted the truth in fundamental ways.

We are not necessarily suggesting here that Obama is to be preferred to McCain and Clinton (though we find certain evidence for that persuasive), but the fact is Obama's strong showing in both Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which states have miniscule black populations, clearly refuted the two contrary assumptions: that the Illinois senator does well or does poorly, as the case might be, because of his race. Until his chief opponent and her team began suggesting otherwise, Obama was clearly being judged instead on the content of his character (or on the character of his content).

To deny that is not merely to subvert the truth, it is to confound Martin Luther King's essential premise and to leave unscourged and uncorrected that fact of racial division which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice so recently and properly referred to as the "birth defect" of the American republic.

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