The Message of Courage in King's Nonviolence

January 14, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington -- As Martin Luther King holiday time rolls around again, the tug-of-war over his legacy continues.

A year ago, when caps and T-shirts honoring Malcolm X were all the rage, I found myself defending King's memory to young people who had gotten the wrong idea. Too young to remember the real man, many have come to believe a disturbingly wimpy caricature, less macho or heroic than the Malcolm glorified in Spike Lee's famous movie.

Wrong. There's no better time than the ultraviolent present for America's children to learn the true message of courage behind King's nonviolence.

But the tug-of-war goes on. This year I find myself watching a more powerful and influential set of Washington figures engaged in a tug-of-war over what King would say if he were alive today.

For example, the conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation is holding a program called ''The Conservative Virtues of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'' today, featuring the former drug czar William J. Bennett, now co-director of Empower America.

Conservative virtues? Are we talking about the same ''drum major for justice'' who tirelessly knocked ''gradualism'' and preached ''Why We Can't Wait'' and was vilified by conservatives as a ''pinko'' fellow traveler with communists, just for preaching the truth? Who would have guessed that, before the end of the century, he would be proclaimed by conservatives as a fellow traveler?

Perhaps this is the inevitable result of efforts to politically sanitize King's memory, moderating his militancy, so former President Reagan could sign the King holiday bill without becoming physically ill.

Since then, never let it be said any politician cannot use King's memory -- or some part of it -- to make a point. President Clinton probably commited a little revisionism of his own, with ground-shaking results, in a November speech in the Memphis church where King preached his final sermon before his assassination in 1968.

What, Mr. Clinton asked, would King say if he were alive today? ''He would say I did not live and die to see the American family destroyed,'' the president said, to enthusiastic applause. ''I did not live and die to see 13-year-old boys get automatic weapons and gun down 9-year-olds just for the kick of it. I did not live and die to see young people destroy their own lives with drugs and then build fortunes destroying the lives of others . . . ''

President Clinton went on to describe his administration's responses to the problem: new gun-control proposals, a proposed get-tough anti-crime bill and a proposed universal health-care bill. Is that all? Jesse Jackson, speaking at the anti-violence conference he, Bill Cosby and Mr. Jackson's Rainbow Coalition convened in Washington last weekend, was not impressed.

After all, Mr. Jackson noted, Mr. Clinton omitted any reference to his own abandonment of a proposed urban aid ''stimulus'' package in the face of Republican opposition. Or his dragging his heels on almost all of his civil-rights nominations almost a year after his inauguration. King called for a guaranteed income for all Americans. Mr. Clinton's crime bill offers poor youths prison ''boot camps.''

''The president was eloquent about the crisis,'' Mr. Jackson said. ''He gave us the whereases. Whereas there are problems, whereas there is pain, whereas there is self-destruction, whereas there is killing. Well, we need the president to go to the level of 'Therefore!'

''Therefore, I appoint a credible assistant attorney general for civil rights. . . . Therefore, I will fulfill the covenant made during my campaign to invest $20 billion a year in rebuilding our cities and putting people back to work. . . .

''Instead of speculating about what Dr. King might have said were he alive today, the president might sensibly look at what Dr. King did say when he was here. . . . He marched on Washington to demand payment on the promissory note that had bounced marked insufficient funds.''

Whose version of King's legacy is closest to the truth? I suppose all are, in their own way.

King, like most black Americans, was a liberal in his politics, but quite conservative when it came to his religion, moral teachings and self-help values.

Self-help permeates his speeches and actions. It's not your fault to be knocked down, he said, but it is your fault if you fail to lift yourself back up.

But part of lifting yourself up is to urge others to lift their feet off your back.

It took more than three centuries of inequality before black Americans won full equality under the law. But, as a group, we have yet to win full acceptance as equal partners in the making of this great nation.

Even when we ''work hard and play by the rules,'' as President Clinton likes to say, successful blacks still run into glass ceilings and walls that continue to separate blacks and whites into quite separate realities. A dismaying array of modern examples are collected by Ellis Cose in his new book, ''The Rage of a Privileged Class'' (HarperCollins).

What would Martin Luther King be saying about the state of black America if he were alive today? I can't say for sure, but I bet he wouldn't be letting anyone off the hook.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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