Has Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Been Invoked by Too Many Causes?

Today, people across the United States will remember and pay homage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his dream of an equal America.

A civil rights icon whose nonviolent resistance helped mainstream the cause of racial equality, Dr. King is a figure much admired in the modern day.

So admired is Dr. King by Americans that many groups invoke him when advancing their respective causes in the public sphere.

When speaking about what Dr. King would believe about church and state issues, in 2005 Bill O’Reilly argued that King “would be appalled by the secular culture, the attacks on Christmas, the demonizing of Christianity.”

Then again, Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State wrote in 2006 that “King was no friend to the Religious Right” and “no advocate of partisan politicking in the pulpit.”

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Pro-Israel group the Anti-Defamation League has stated that King “was a leader in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry and supported Israel’s right to a secure and independent state.”

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Interestingly enough, Adri Nieuwhof of the Pro-Palestinian website drew a different conclusion about Dr. King’s message regarding the conflict.

“Martin Luther King made it very clear that we – peace loving people – should act against injustice. We should establish ‘an effective quarantine’ of Israel, just like we did with apartheid South Africa,” wrote Nieuwhof.

It seems as though nearly every cause in the American public sphere, liberal or conservative, foreign or domestic, has invoked Dr. King as an ally.

Yet have all these posthumous endorsements gone too far?

After his time

Born Michael Luther King Jr. in 1929, Martin grew up to become a major public figure in the struggle for racial equality.

Pastor and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King was a leader in the effort to eliminate the white supremacist racial hierarchy of the Jim Crow South.

Results from his efforts ranged from being thrown into prison to eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize. His passionate words in speeches like the “I Have a Dream” oratory still inspire.

King also held views on other issues, advocating for, among other things, increased welfare programs for the poor and an end to American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Much has changed in the U.S. since Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, with debates and contemporary issues arising that were largely dormant during his public career.

Certain issues, like Affirmative Action and gay rights, where hot button debates whose public profile manifested largely or completely after King’s death.

Uncertain endorsements

Both proponents and opponents of race-based Affirmative Action have argued that Dr. King would have been on their side if alive.

Since the first wave of programs dubbed Affirmative Action were mostly created in the late ’60s and early ’70s, King did not comment on those specific programs.

Many opponents of Affirmative Action have argued King would oppose the programs since it was King who said people should be judged by their character rather than their skin color.

Some proponents of Affirmative Action have countered by pointing to King’s support for the creation of government programs to assist the less fortunate, including African Americans, in particular.

“It’s a common debating tactic to assert that some respected figure of the past would endorse your position on some controversy of the present,” wrote Eric Foner in a Slate piece arguing against the idea that King would oppose Affirmative Action.

“There is little doubt that the originals would find the views attributed to them surprising sometimes. Abraham Lincoln, for example, has been claimed as a forbear by everyone from Communists to Dixiecrats.”

The Stonewall Riots, seen as the beginning of the modern day gay rights movement, happened the year after Dr. King’s assassination.

It is a matter of record that King thought negatively about homosexuality. In an advice column for Ebony magazine, King wrote that homosexuality was a “problem” that was “culturally acquired.”

Yet this has not ended the debate for many, as numerous gay activist groups invoke Dr. King as one who would have supported their cause if still alive.

King’s own family has been divided on the issue, as are other social commentators who have debated whether or not King would have “evolved” with the times.

Ultimately, the efforts of so many different ideological groups to claim Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as their own bears witness to the influence and the popularity for which the slain civil rights leader has in modern America.

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