Martin Luther King: Privileged and Insensitive?

Students at the University of Oregon have demanded that a quotation by Martin Luther King be removed from the wall of their student union building because King’s remarks were not “inclusive” enough. The offending words? “I have a dream that my 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. I have a dream…”

It seems that King did not acknowledge the LGBT community when he argued for racial equality, and that makes him privileged and insensitive. So, off with his head—and his quotation.

Never mind that King was risking his own life to lead the way for racial equality (a risk that ended in his murder). Never mind that he was a minority voice with no political power save the art of persuasion. Never mind that his dream of his children being judged by the content of their character can include minorities of all kinds, or that the LGBT community and the feminist movements were blazing trails of their own at the time. King is considered privileged and insensitive for not including them specifically.

Change is a process. You install new carpet and then realize the walls need new paint, which makes the curtains look dingy so you replace those, and before long you have a whole new room of furniture. Yet these same students who are so self-righteously criticizing the leaders of the past have no idea whose rights they are ignoring—or even trampling—today.

It was, in fact, Oregon students who 30 years ago demanded that the university replace its motto, “Leader in the quest for the good life for all men,” with the King quotation, after feminists objected that the motto did not include women. Too bad they didn’t think of the LGBT community back then. (And too bad they didn’t realize that the word “men” originally was inclusive of both genders.) The point is, when you’re blazing a trail, you cut away the biggest obstacles first, and leave the paving of the road for those who come behind. It’s a process, not a destination.

This same criticism is made against the Founding Fathers because they did not address the slavery issue when they declared independence from Great Britain. And yes, they were Founding Fathers. Not a single woman signed the Declaration. But that doesn’t mean women weren’t involved. They were managing family farms, running family businesses, overseeing their children’s education, maintaining home security, and ensuring there would be enough income and capital to allow their husbands to focus on freedom. These were partnerships, even if the women’s names didn’t appear on the documents.

Should they have emancipated the slaves at the same time? From our perspective, of course. But the country wasn’t ready for that much change. Slavery had been an economic institution for millennia, and few people realized that you could persuade people to do the grunt work without a whip, simply by paying them a good wage. It was a revolutionary idea to think that a country could be governed of, by, and for the people without a monarch in charge. To proclaim that everyone had been born with certain inalienable rights took six bloody years to prove. They blazed the trail. Blacks and then women would pave it.

Charles Dickens has been similarly criticized for being elitist and not being progressive enough. He ignored the problem of slavery and racism. Yet Dickens’s stories about children and the middle class led to important reforms that made it possible for future writers to take the next steps. Dickens should be admired for the progress he made in social and labor reforms, and not criticized for what he left for others to accomplish.

I dream of a time when people will be judged by the culture of their own times, and not by the social progress of the future. I forgive the imperfections of past leaders, because they were blazing new trails for me, cutting through oppressive underbrush and battling archaic beliefs, so that I could travel their broad highways while searching for new trails to blaze.

 

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