As we pause to honor Dr. King, his vision, and that of the Founders, seems as far away as ever.
A charismatic leader who could mobilize people. Marching in Washington. Demands for change. Public officials stoking fear of the Other by invoking the Communist threat. FBI investigations. Calls for unity amid the chaos. History doesn’t repeat, they say, but it often rhymes. On this day when we pause to honor Dr. King, two movements stirring the nation to action, in his time and ours, couldn’t be more different. The truth they weave between them, however, is complex and interrelated. They share DNA, and it springs from America’s original sin.
In the beginning, there was unity… of sorts. The Founders were men of the Enlightenment, and their vision for a new country broke with European traditions of assessing the worth of men by comparing their noble titles and personal wealth. In this nation, free of aristocracy, unlimited by palace or church, all men were to be equal under the law. Their aims, for the time, were decidedly liberal. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite complete their first draft of “liberty and justice for all.” For women, the franchise was a long way off, and legal equality further still. Chattel slavery was enshrined in the Constitution despite a supposed inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Great Compromise, an attempt at unity between free and slaveholding states, kicked the can down the road. We can still hear it rattling.
Unity held, for a while. Sorely tested by the first hot eruption of our endemic Civil War, the country split along the same fault line that imperfect men like Thomas Jefferson left unhealed. Stitching the country back together meant altering the Constitution, adding Amendments that lie sleeping for a hundred years until awakened in Dr. King’s time. Could the nation still hear the whispered promise of equality, breathed by the Founders who could see, but not yet realize it? Dr. King’s dream, of Americans being judged by the content of their character, all of us joining hands in freedom, so threatened the country that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI used every resource available to destroy the movement. Only with an implied threat from less peaceful groups did nonviolence sway Americans, and only much later was Dr. King remembered as a hero rather than an agitator, a villain, a Communist.
And today? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Those who only mouthed Dr. King’s words spent three generations “walking on eggshells” until Donald Trump set them free to say what they really felt, to let their true colors fly. The culmination: another charismatic leader urging them towards freedom, another march to set things right, a continuation of the same old Civil War, for the same old reasons.
Now, as the “party of personal responsibility” compares the social media bans, arrests, and firings resulting from their coup involvement to actual Stalinist purges (while planning yet more mayhem during the coming Inauguration), some have the nerve to call for unity. Let us not forget that the proximate cause for the Capitol putsch was Conservatives’ desperate desire to “take their country back” by disenfranchising the voters in Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and the Navajo and Hopi reservations in Arizona, who tipped a close election in favor of Joe Biden. It’s the same kind of unity that called for Dr. King to sit down and shut up, the same unity that counted each enslaved person as 3/5ths of a human being.
There can be no unity when it means only capitulation with no accountability. Eternally appeasing reactionaries will never fulfill the vision of equality that motivated not only Dr. King, but the Founders themselves. How many times reaching across the aisle, only to withdraw a bloody stump, does it take before this becomes clear? How long before Americans, finally, realize that “We the People” means all of us?
Related: The Conjoined States of America