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MLK, sound bites and the importance of context

| Tuesday, April 16, 2019

I recently read an opinion piece by former Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal. He begins it with a criticism of the identity politics that has become associated with modern American liberalism. Pushing back against this ideology, Jindal reminded us of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington — in which he dreamed his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It’s a beautiful sentiment. It’s an important one, too. But Jindal didn’t need to remind us of it. Not only is it by far King’s most famous quote — it’s the only one I ever hear.

MLK was the world’s leading civil rights activist for more than a decade. He led boycotts and marches. He wrote countless books, letters and sermons on the evils of segregation and the necessity of change. His legacy can’t be encapsulated in one quote, especially not one so often used to misrepresent his philosophy. King didn’t believe in colorblindness; he did not think rugged individualism was the greatest weapon against racism. The surest way to keep black Americans oppressed, he stated, was to deny them their historical context. If you absolutely had to sum up King’s beliefs in a single excerpt (you can’t), it’s better done with what he said in an NBC interview from June of 1967:

“White America must see that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. … America freed the slaves in 1863 … but gave the slaves no land, and nothing in reality. … And so emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate and therefore was freedom and famine at the same time. And when white Americans tell the Negro to “lift himself by his own bootstraps,” they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves … but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression.”

It’s telling that we rarely hear the remarks above. When Jindal and others pick one five-second sound bite as their representation of King, they contort his beliefs to match their own. They sanitize his legacy. They ignore America’s past and its effects on the present. They shift the responsibility for overcoming systemic racism away from the country, together, and onto individuals.

King isn’t the only person frequently taken out of context. Across every aspect of American history, we find ways to simplify and distort the messages of public figures. Vince Lombardi is famous for his maxim “Winning isn’t everything: it’s the only thing.” Few know how deeply he regretted saying it, and that he would “wish to hell I never said the damned thing. I meant the effort. … I meant having a goal. … I sure as hell didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.” Everyone’s favorite “constitutional purist” Thomas Jefferson expanded the reach of executive power to a degree far greater than either of his predecessors. He wrote that “laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed … institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”

Sound bites like “content of their character” are easy. They can make a bold figure like Dr. King more palatable to an uncomfortable audience. But if you don’t listen beyond the sound bite, you’ll miss the message entirely. We are supposed to be uncomfortable. These issues are supposed to be discomforting. King knew this — and what he knew can’t be summed up in a single sentence or in a single interview or in a single book. Martin Luther King’s convictions can only be understood through the broader scope of his life and his mission. They can only be understood, as with everything else, in context.

Patrick McKelvey splits his time between being a college junior and a grumpy old man. A New Jersey native and American studies major, he plans on pursuing a legal career after graduating Notre Dame. If you can’t find him at the movies, he can be reached for comment at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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