Even the dead: On Martin Luther King Day

Walter Benjamin famously, and somewhat enigmatically, declared that “even the dead won’t be safe from the enemy if he is victorious.” The example that leaps to mind for me is Martin Luther King, the increasingly revolutionary leader who was assassinated by white America and then made into an icon of its progress. So, for instance, the National Review — a right-wing publication that was against him every step of the way — can commemorate this day with an obscene appropriation that reduces the great man to a motivational slogan:


Similarly, the Washington Post has seen fit to mark this day by publishing a column declaring Martin Luther King a true conservative who stood up for American values. The column initially seems well-intentioned, but it’s much more about restoring the cultural prestige of conservatism in the face of Trump than about affirming King’s authentic legacy.

King was never mainstream. Even the nice liberals worried that he was going too far, moving too fast. The gains he made came after his movement had, through great sacrifice and suffering, undeniably shown up the ugliness and violence of racism. He didn’t proceed by appealing to our best instincts, unless it was by the indirect route of holding up a mirror to our very worst instincts. And now he’s become a tool for asserting white righteousness and, more often than not, shaming the very people who uphold his legacy of protest that is non-violent but far from peaceful — because it reveals the war that has always been at the heart of our sick society. Indeed, other than MLK Day itself, I am struggling to remember a time when his name has been evoked other than as a weapon against organizers in the black community.

Even the dead will not be safe. They kill the man, then kill the legacy — by actively blinding themselves to it.