Archive for Sunday, January 19, 2003

Groups invoke King’s name in causes from war protests to homosexual rights

January 19, 2003

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Martin Luther King Jr.'s image has been used to protest a potential war on Iraq, denounce a gay rights law and sell wireless phone service.

The trouble, of course, is that the civil rights leader "is not here to speak for himself," said the Rev. Richard Bennett, executive director of the African American Council of Christian Clergy in Miami.

On the eve of the holiday commemorating King's birth, some scholars and civil rights leaders say that while it's not much of a stretch to assert that King would have opposed war with Iraq -- he was an advocate of nonviolence and critical of American intervention in Vietnam -- commercial use of his image and words is going too far.

"The overall danger that we run, and that we've run ever since the holiday was adopted, is that King is used so widely that in most instances it drains the real political substance and challenge from his message," said David J. Garrow. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference."

King, who was assassinated in 1968, would have turned 74 last Wednesday. The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is observed on Monday.

Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University history professor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, said it's appropriate that his words and thoughts are still used.

"Like other cultural artifacts, people want to use him for lots of different reasons," Carson said.

Last week, San Francisco activists handed out fliers with King's picture urging people to attend anti-war demonstrations. They made thousands of signs with his picture and the words "Stand Against War & Racism."

"The legacy of King is very much a part of the anti-war movement," said Bill Hackwell of International A.N.S.W.E.R. -- Act Now to Stop War & End Racism -- in San Francisco.

It's not hard to imagine King taking positions on such issues that might not fit under the very strictest definition of civil rights. Monday at a Cambridge, Mass., church, community members plan to read excerpts from an anti-war speech King delivered in 1967.

Coretta Scott King, in an interview with The Associated Press, recalled how her husband spoke out against the Vietnam War and was told "you ought to stick to civil rights."

"He said, 'I've fought too long and too hard against segregation to now segregate my moral concerns,"' she said.

Groups in Miami-Dade County invoked King's name last year on another issue -- opposing gay rights.

They distributed fliers with King's picture in an effort to repeal an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. "Martin Luther King Jr. would be OUTRAGED!" if he knew gays "were abusing the civil rights movement to get special rights based on their sexual behavior," the fliers said. The repeal effort failed.

Bennett, of the Miami clergy group, said he had misgivings about the use of King's picture. But his group endorsed the fliers because it decided "as a Christian organization, we should make a statement that we believe King would have gone against the ordinance," Bennett said.

Craig Washington disagrees. The executive director of the Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Center cited King's words -- "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" -- and said there were parallels between oppression based on race and on sexual orientation.

King never spoke publicly on the subject, but his widow has supported gay rights.

What also has sparked debate is the use of King's image and words -- with the family's permission -- in advertising for Alcatel, Cingular Wireless and Apple Computer.

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