The Santa-fication of Martin Luther King, Jr.

How does a man who was so deeply unpopular when he was alive become a universally beloved and toothless Christ figure? The holiday and the statues, for starters.

Ritual is a tricky thing. It’s supposed to reaffirm and reify belief, but the repetition can leave the ritual shorn of any context. The lobbying by activists to make MLK’s birthday a national holiday had the unintended effect of making Dr. King a neat little totem of racial progress to be trotted out annually and paid a perfunctory obeisance. The climax of the “I Have A Dream” speech is trotted out like so many candy canes in December, and a polarizing political activist who was murdered in cold blood to be a pitchman for computers and pickup trucks and computers.

Even conservatives genuflect before his memory. While dismantling affirmative action, a policy King advocated, they cite King’s aspiration that Americans be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. King is a totem: safe, universal, unobjectionable. He is as remote and mythical to schoolchildren as any other figure in the national pantheon stretching back to the founding fathers. His inner turmoil, his public failures, his vocal critics, left and right, have all faded from view, replaced by a fable in which a nation awakens gently to his self-evident dream.

One of our regular commenters hipped us to an internal letter from the massive accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which outlined its decision to treat today as a regular work day. That notion is highly disagreeable to a lot of people, who feel that working on the holiday is a slight to MLK’s memory. Guess it was pretty inevitable.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Interesting. I just posted a poem I wrote in 1985, “On the First Official Recognition…” I think of it as outdated now; America has found real and dignified ways to mark this day. Yet what you say certainly rings true. Thanks for the perspective.

  • slb

    Was he “deeply unpopular?” With whom? (Clearly, I haven’t watched enough MLKJ biopics.)

    Also, I thought you might appreciate this.

  • People *hated* MLK. They thought he was a rabble-rousing media whore.

    That most people don’t know what speaks to how much he’s sterilized.

  • slb

    “They” thought he was the equivalent of Al Sharpton? Really?

  • That analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s not completely inaccurate. People thought King, who was vocally anti-poverty, was a Communist. And it wasn’t like a country that was complicit in codified racism was gonna take well to one of its most vocal (and effective) opponent. He also wasn’t well-liked on the left, either.

    Here’s a great article on his legacy and how it’s changed.

  • Aisha

    Kindergarden Teacher : Who was Martin Luther King?
    Student: He was a stupid man who got shot.

    I’m not joking at all…my friend weeps for her DC public school students.

  • GVG

    The humor and then the pleasure that has become my day, I was swamped with things that had to get down yesterday. I made a conscious decision that I wouldn’t read any post on PostBourgie or any other of my favorite sites yesterday, because I wanted to dedicate the appropriate time and brain power to each thought provoking piece and if pissed or moved – have enough time to let off a good rant. I woke up today, got my morning task out the way, then prepared to enjoy a great post I had been looking forward to since I read the title yesterday – The Santa-fication of Martin Luther King, Jr.. I knew was going to get a challenging piece that would contradict the common perception of most people of MLK and what has become “his holiday”, then I notice a nod to the PwC letter I received and thought oh I guess that got out, and to my amazement it was a link to my site. LOL, I was actually surprised when I posted it that I didn’t have you in the comment discussion. I know see why. I appreciate the love and your perspective on it G.D.

    P.S. I was thoroughly engulfed with that video segment you had at the top of the post and had already begun thinking of all the ways I could use it in a piece of my own, then the hammer of shock came down at the end when that Mac logo popped up. Which I know was your intended goal – Well played my friend. It definitely set you in the right mindset to read the piece.

  • GVG

    Ok, Now that I’ve gotten the fanfare out of the way, back to our originally scheduled programming. I do agree that he has been whitewashed and turned into a series of sound bites to accomplish the goal of making him sellable as a “national” holiday. However, I do not agree with your assertion that he was deeply unpopular nor do I believe they had to give him two coats to accomplish their goal of whitewashing him, even back then he was a bit whitewashed to accomplish his own goals. It was easier for America, correction, liberal America to swallow the civil rights pill preaching the united, all loving, 1 nation under god chant, as opposed to the others going by the Sam Greenlee, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Mau Mau, Frantz Fanon rise and take this country by any means necessary anarchist handbooks.

    Please understand by nature I’m a fighter – it runs in my blood and stands as a reflection of my Haitian ancestors. I’m always looking for a reason to stand up and fight a cause. So the idea of turning the other cheek and the passive aggressive tactics of MLK that were in sharp contrast to Malcolm’s defense of your liberties and life against anyone by the same means they have been challenged and/or endangered was always a position that spoke to my heart.

    The reason that our children are only taught about MLK, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Dubois, and others likes them instead of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and the above mention Toussaint L’Ouverture is because they fit the archetype of the way liberal Amerikkka likes to see their black men – Smart, but conscious of their place even in a fight. They don’t ever want to see and have to deal with the angry black man. That’s why they will always make the argument to abolish affirmative action based on the argument that as long as you keep your head down, work hard, speak properly, don’t make noise, and be a “good” black – you will be able to accomplish anything you want in this here good ol’ “united” states of Amerikkka.

  • GVG:

    Methinks you’ve gone too far afield in making your point.

    King’s unpopularity isn’t really up for debate. People really, really disliked him. Liberals disliked him for being against Vietnam. As the Black Power movement gained steam, he found his views increasingly out of favor with younger people. And, obviously, segregationists hated his guts. (

    I wouldn’t argue that King was ‘smart but conscious of his place.’ I think you’re speaking to my point: people tend to view King as a harmless do-gooder who said beautiful things but didn’t challenge anyone. Nonviolence was incredibly radical. MLK helped organize a wide-reaching campaign of civil disobedience. And while it didn’t accomplish all its goals, it was astonishingly effective. Jim Crow went from de jure to outlawed as a direct result of King and Rustin and that cohort. Let’s not diminish what the man accomplished.

    Contrast that with Malcolm, a brilliant rhetorician who’s been the subject of his own posthumous mythmaking. How effective was Malcolm, really?

    (I won’t touch the ‘Haitian’ or ‘Amerikkka’ comments.)

  • GVG


    Don’t take my comments to be derogatory or undervaluing of the impact MLK had on this country and the civil rights movement. My point is even with his successes, just as with Dubois and Marshall, they were playing by the theory – you have to be within the system to change it. As opposed to the position – you have to take the system down to build a better one in its place or you shall always have the fundamentally corrupt system that adjust and repackages itself to accomplish its directive of holding down a people it feels to be lesser. Both have their merits and faults, but for me I think we are in our current state of indifference because the system realized how to sedate to the point of inaction by having us believe that our “campaign of civil disobedience” worked and there was was no need to fight anymore.

    I do see a direct correlation between the selling of a dream to a day when we have certain unnamed liberal politicians talking about the realization of those said dreams. While the drop out and murder rates, that both effect a disproportionate amount of our fellow Blacks and Latinos, are at all time highs with no real aggressive, implementable action to correct the systematic factors that cause said outcomes to exist in the first place. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is this not the same blog that in a recent post used this quote “You think if 300 white people were killed in this city every year, they wouldn’t send the 82nd Airborne? Negro, please.” As an illustration of the current state of minority affairs in Amerikkka, then in another post discussed how education hasn’t even been a topic on the radar of this current election?

    Please my friend touch the ‘Haitian’ or ‘Amerikkka’ comments, I look forward to your insight on both matters.

    P.S. “campaign of civil disobedience” sounds like what a child does when he sits in a corner pouting for not being allowed to go outside and play. We weren’t then and still on this day are not children, I’ll go anywhere I damn well please, and god help the man that tries to stop me.

  • GVG:

    Lol. Fam, you are *wild* preachy. Let’s see if I can get to all this.

    We did touch on education and murder — at length, even. But I’m having a hard time following how you’re linking those problems to King’s dream — instead of say, seeing them as vestiges and updates of the codified and de jure racism that he was trying to combat.

    on the campaign of ‘civil disobedience’ point: um, what exactly did you think the Black Panther Party was doing, if not mounting a campaign of civil disobedience?

    More later.

  • GVG

    I think you need to reread my response. I mentioned both your post as how we are talking about it, we are the only ones. The peoples in the offices to “effect change” aren’t.

    As for the Black Panther moveement there was a very loudly spoken and heard understanding that we would not turn the other cheek nor would we allow anyone to come into our communities to destroy what we built without feeling the full wrath of the cause.

  • GVG:

    Again, how effective was the BPP and the black power movement in general? can you point to tangible proof that what they did worked (free lunch program not withstanding)?