Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Applying King's legacy

The annual conversation about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s legacy is indeed an odd ritual as a panelist at WNYC’s annual forum at the Brooklyn Museum on Sunday correctly asserted, but self-appointed members, representatives and spokespeople of underrepresented groups who evoke it to advance a particular cause raise some particularly peculiar questions themselves.

Case in point: I came home and found an e-mail in my inbox that announced a handful of white gay activists chanted “Dr. King supported equality for all!” at various locations in Midtown Manhattan and unfurled a poster with the same message inside Grand Central. The same group staged a similar action yesterday afternoon in Union Square. As a skeptical journalist, the obvious question is whether King would have actually supported marriage for gays and lesbians and general LGBT equality.

His widow, Coretta Scott King, and their eldest daughter Yolanda indeed came out in support of nuptials for same-sex couples in the 2000s. Coretta Scott King maintained marriage for gays and lesbians is indeed a civil rights issue; and that her husband’s legacy includes equality for gays and lesbians. Based on these public statements alone, one can obviously conclude King himself would have endorsed the right of same-sex couples to marry. But is it appropriate, however, for a dozen white gay activists to take it upon themselves to publicly proclaim this almost certain reality at various locations throughout Manhattan?

The always brilliant Patricia Williams of Columbia University’s School of Law provided some guidance in her response to Celeste Headlee’s question about other issues for which she thought King would have fought. Their exchange took place within the context of Haiti, but Williams’ answer can be applied to who evokes King’s name, message and legacy and the purpose to which they apply it.

“He’s a very handy sort of authoritative figure for whatever we sort of want him to be,” she said. “I think it’s unfair sometimes to go beyond what he actually said, and I think it’s perhaps a better enterprise to take into account that he spoke words of eternal wisdom, but that’s its really up to us.”

The group of white gay men who gathered around Midtown over the weekend certainly took the “words of eternal wisdom” and applied them to support their message of LGBT equality. King’s own words provide a convenient source of catchy sound bites, feel-good messages and inclusive rhetoric. The visual reality of the white gay men in Midtown and countless others who choose to evoke them, however, often leaves a series of peculiar and even problematic questions in their wake.

No comments: