On a picturesque autumn day in the White House Rose Garden in 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the Martin Luther King Day bill into law. Even then, fifteen years after King had been gunned down in Memphis, support for the bill was hardly universal — Senator Jesse Helms had infamously filibustered to stop its passage — but Reagan used the occasion to affirm the greatness of the country and enlisted Dr. King to express faith in our promised future. As Reagan put it:
“Now our nation has decided to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by setting aside a day each year to remember him and the just cause he stood for…. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. And we should remember that in far too many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all.”
No matter the shortcomings of the nation, Reagan maintained, America remained a singular place where liberty, equality, and individuality flourished under the watchful eyes of God.
Watch Ronald Reagan’s full 1983 speech honoring MLK Day
After the president finished speaking, those in attendance began, somewhat tentatively, to sing “We Shall Overcome.” Their nervousness spoke volumes. While Reagan ushered King into the national pantheon as a true patriot, he was also putting the final nail in the coffin of Dr. King’s legacy.
The problem was not the notion that King should be celebrated but rather the question of for what. Reagan’s words obliterated King’s radical witness — the heart of his late work in Chicago and Memphis — and reduced his legacy to a sentimental idea of universal brotherhood and the inherent goodness of America.
For many Americans of whatever color, Dr. King has become a four-word sentence: “I have a dream.” And that sentence is often tied to his aspirational claim: that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
But Dr. King’s dream should not be read as a straightforward desire for color-blindness. In the context of the entire speech, his hope for his children stands not as a utopian reverie but rather as a harsh criticism of the racial habits that sustain the value gap in this country — the belief that white people are more valued than others. “We can never be satisfied,” he says in the “Dream” speech, “as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating FOR WHITES ONLY.”
Watch Dr. Martin Luther King’s full ‘I Have A Dream Speech’
This criticism is lost in our celebration of Dr. King. Since even before Reagan praised him (to bury him) in the Rose Garden, King has been and continues to be put to perverse political uses.
Almost before the last mourner had taken leave of King’s grave, conservatives began using his words that all Americans should “be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” to support color-blind policies aimed at dismantling the gains of the civil rights movement. For them, individuals mattered more than the history of groups. Collective injustice, as suffered by African-Americans and others, gave way to cases of individual injury and demands for individual responsibility. In this way, Dr. King’s words became the basis for eliminating discussion of race matters from public view.
This misuse of King has echoed down through the decades, crossing the political aisle when necessary. Even President Obama in his last State of the Union of Address invoked Dr. King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech after celebrating America’s military might and proclaiming his willingness to hunt and kill our country’s enemies. A domesticated King, in Obama’s hands, only urged us to reach for our better angels in our politics — not as human beings.
Various interests on the right and left continue to deploy Dr. King’s legacy and words to justify dismantling race-specific policies or to authenticate their own limited liberal vision. In order to use him this way, King has to be disremembered. Disremembering involves active forgetting, and societies do it all the time. They bury the historic wrongs that lie beneath their feet and tend to remember more palatable versions of their heroes and heroines. But disremembering wrongs leaves vulnerable those among us who are the inheritors of historic wounds, who still bear the scars of past collective deeds.
In so many ways, our yearly celebration of Dr. King has never escaped the troubling frame given to it by Reagan, and therefore, it has become a ritual act of disremembering. It is a memorialization of a particular understanding of him (without his criticism of white supremacy, poverty, and empire) designed to fortify the illusion of color-blindness in a country where dramatic racial inequality persists. King has become a tool in the American dream machine.
His was not a vision consonant with the white fantasy of color-blindness. It was, rather, a demand that we release our democracy from the burdens of white supremacy. As King said in 1967:
“Ever since the birth of our nation, White America has had a schizophrenic personality on the question of race, she has been torn between selves. A self in which she proudly professes the great principle of democracy and a self in which she madly practices the antithesis of democracy.”
Sadly, for so many now, Dr. King’s words serve to obscure rather than illuminate the tragedy of America. Like vultures (and African-Americans have joined in the feast), we have picked clean his bones, such that his powerful dream confirms the illusion of our national innocence and keeps us all sleepwalking.
Eddie Glaude is the chair of the Center for African-American Studies and the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African-American Studies at Princeton University and author of a new book called Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves The American Soul.