Yesterday afternoon I was driving south on I-95 through downtown Jacksonville, and my two children pointed out a billboard to my left that read simply, “Martin Luther King was a Republican.” Underneath that statement, the billboard listed the sponsor as an association for black Republicans.
Of course my children had questions. To them the Republican Party is antithetical to all that Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for, fought for, and represented. In a word, the Republican Party seems to fly in the face of all that they believed Dr. King symbolized.
And symbols are powerful things indeed. As human beings often we often reduce the broad sentiments, the ethos, the purpose of a group of people to a symbol. And each time we confront this symbol, the group’s narrative necessarily comes to mind.
Think of the Statue of Liberty standing in New York harbor. Think of the American flag or the United States Constitution. Both have become symbols of this nation. Alternately, think of the peace sign or the upraised, clenched black fist. Both have become symbols of a movement.
But the complicated truth about symbols is that symbols are imbued with a certain meaning that can and often does change over time. And further, the meaning of symbols can and does change from person to person, group to group; what one person, one group sees in a symbol, another person or group may see something else. For one person or group, a symbol could be inspirational, while in another person or group, that symbol might evoke absolute terror or wrath.
Additionally, symbols may be appropriated by opposing groups to meet their ends.
Martin Luther King, Jr. has largely become a symbol. However, the meaning of that symbol differs according to race, according to generation, according to political affiliation. And over forty years after his death, the narrative of his life and the meaning thereof has been revisited and revised innumerable times.
Disparate groups have poured over that narrative, extracting this detail and that, all toward the end of whatever purpose they have in mind. And disparate groups have claimed ownership of that symbol. African Americans have jealously and tenaciously attempted to claim the narrative of Martin Luther King, Jr. as uniquely our own. The nation has claimed MLK as a symbol of the possibility this nation has to offer. And the world has claimed MLK in the main as a symbol of the possibilities of peace.
But of course the question then becomes, “What does MLK mean to you?”
The billboard alluded to earlier prompted questions from my children that I was forced to answer. As to MLK’s political affiliation, I honestly do not know. From some of his writings, it becomes clear that King may certainly have been a Republican. In fact, his father was a registered Republican, so it would perhaps be unusual if his son did not follow suit.
However, because of the Democratic Party’s reluctant embrace of the Civil Rights platform, you could perhaps rightly conjecture that King made the migration to the Democratic Party along with the majority of African Americans.
But according to the King Research Institute at Stanford and King years Pulitzer Prize winning chronicler Taylor Branch, King was nonpartisan.
I think the Republican party has attempted to co-opt and appropriate King-as-a-symbol in an effort to appeal to Blacks. Furthermore, ultimately it matters little if King was a Democrat or Republican. But it does matter that King-as-narrative and King-as-symbol be reconciled so as to retain the true meaning of King’s life and work.
Above all, King was an humanitarian; he believed in lending a helping hand to the downtrodden, the destitute, the exploited, to those most bereft of hope. And his message was not one of passive participation and engagement, but of direct and active confrontation of those forces who would seek to grind those perceived lesser members of society underfoot. His method was to challenge the consciousness, to assail the practices of oppression and degradation.
As we take part in this yearly ritual, this yearly celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and works, it becomes incumbent that we protect the meaning thereof. And, additionally, it becomes incumbent that amid the replay of his speeches, amid the parades and public celebration, we allow this meaning to guide us in our everyday lives and praxis. Let us become living billboards, living symbols of the principles he lived and died for.