Opinion » Editorial

Salvaging MLK's Legacy



One of the unfortunate casualties of any human conflict, be it warfare or that milder form of confrontation that is a political campaign, is truth. When nations battle, we call the lies they tell about each other propaganda. In the case of politics, the operative word is "spin." The results are the same. A perverse sort of imagination goes overboard and takes reality down with it.

Something like that has occurred during the previous week of campaigning in this year's presidential race — and unfortunately on the very eve of the late Martin Luther King's birthday, detracting both from the national holiday honoring the great civil rights martyr and from Dr. King's focus on unity rather than division. Worse, the spat between the competing Democratic camps of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has managed to bring Dr. King's legacy itself into controversy.

It all began with a simple statement from candidate Clinton, ostensibly harmless in itself: "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ... It took a president to get it done."

This may or may not have been her response to the fact that rival Obama, an African American himself, has increasingly begun invoking the name of Dr. King. Senator Clinton's statement may or may not have amounted to a kind of code meant to distinguish herself, as a long-time practical politician, from the likes of relative newcomer Obama. The fact remains: The words are harmless in and of themselves, even true.

They nevertheless became the occasion for a brushfire combat between the two political camps that still wages. For the first time, Obama, who had been letting his race speak for itself, found it becoming a major point of focus. Charges and countercharges flew back and forth between the two sides — one of the silliest being a false allegation that former president Bill Clinton had meant to disparage Obama's status as a black icon by using the phrase "fairy tale." (What the ex-president was actually discussing was inconsistencies he perceived in the Illinois senator's statements about the Iraq war. Fairly or not, the media began taking as serious what prominent commentators began calling a "race war."

This makes it high time to recall some famous words from King from his immemorial "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, in which he foresaw a time when people of all races would be judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Just so.

Happily, candidates Obama and Clinton stopped feuding on the issue this week, long enough for each to make statements exculpating each other and retreating from the precipice. Said Obama: "We all believe in civil rights; we all believe in equal rights," adding that he did not want the campaign "to degenerate into so much tit for tat, back and forth, that we lose sight of why all of us are doing this." And said Clinton: "Let's come together, because I want more than anything else to ensure that our family stays together on the frontlines of the struggle to expand rights for all Americans."

Dr. King would have approved. And so do we.

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