Speaking Monday at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas—a place that has absolutely no resonance with the civil rights struggle whatsoever—Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele opined that Martin Luther King, Jr. would disapprove of America’s elected officials. “Dr. King would be disappointed in the political leadership of this country for failing to address the least of us,” he said, before turning to a large red man with horns and a goatee and demanding, “There—are you happy now?” Subsequent eyewitness reports suggested that that second part didn’t really happen. The first thing, though—yeah, he actually said that.
Steele’s contention was that Democrats and Republicans alike had failed to address the problem of poverty in America—Democrats, for the last eight months, and Republicans for the last 142 years.* He acknowledged that his own party was guilty of the poor—and therefore black—saying, “We’ve all screwed it up because we focused on the wrong things. At some point, we’ve got to focus on the right things and those right things start with the people who are concerned about what their tomorrow is going to look like.” During the Q&A session that followed, a questioner asked Steele, “in all seriousness,” what he imagined Dr. King would think of his party’s efforts to block universal health care. Steele described the idea that Republicans would use their legislative power to prevent passage of meaningful health care reform with a public option “a great myth.” Shortly thereafter, the questioner was escorted from the meeting. Mythbusted!
I agree with Steele’s fundamental contention that we should focus on the right things, and that those things are probably connected in some way to people who try to visualize the future. If that string of clichés and vague catchwords provides us with an window on how he actually thinks, I also sympathize with Michael Steele’s apparent assumption that words are just sounds you make with your mouth that, if intoned in the correct series, can make you Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. Still, of all the political theorists and anti-poverty activists he could have chosen: Martin Luther King? My guess is Dr. King would be too busy crying in astonished joy at the news of a black President/furrowing his brow and asking the speaker to repeat himself at the news of a black Republican National Committee chairman to cast aspersions. Once someone is dead, you’re not allowed to make public declarations about what they would think of your political opponents. Especially if they’re the nation’s most significant civil right activist, assassinated in their prime, and you’re a damn muppet.
In this case, though, Michael Steele might actually be right: Dr. King would probably be totally pissed at the nation’s political leadership. After all, he’s the man who once said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Probably, though, he’d be sufficiently well-read to direct a little more of his ire at one side of the aisle. As usual, Michael Steele assumes that you are not.
* Also not explicitly stated.