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What Sarah Palin gets totally wrong about MLK Day and the 'race card'
Palin celebrates MLK Day by bashing the country's first black president
 
Palin celebrated MLK day by telling the president to stop playing the race card. 
Palin celebrated MLK day by telling the president to stop playing the race card.  (Rick Friedman/CORBIS)

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) caused a small kerfuffle on Monday by requesting of President Obama, on her Facebook page: "Mr. President, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card."

Nobody seems quite sure what prompted the request, though USA Today and Talking Points Memo, among others, suggest it was a new Obama profile in The New Yorker, in which the president famously says that marijuana is no worse for people than cigarettes and alcohol. In the germane passage regarding race, Obama tells interviewer David Remnick:

There's no doubt that there's some folks who just really dislike me because they don't like the idea of a black president.... Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I'm a black president. [New Yorker]

Palin began her critique with this quote from Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

The inference is that the civil rights icon, like Palin apparently, was committed to "ending any racial divide," and would have been above playing the "race card."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but King was trying to end a very specific racial divide, and he wasn't really worried about white children being judged by the color of their skin. Seriously, read the speech [PDF]. He does hope that "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." But when he was speaking in 1963, nobody was really keeping the sons of slave-owners away from that table.

This isn't pro forma Palin-bashing. She wasn't alive when King gave his speech, and I have no doubt she is an admirer of the changes King helped bring to the United States. But it doesn't honor Dr. King to misrepresent what those changes were.

On Sunday, The Atlantic revisited the famous 1964 Norman Rockwell painting of a 6-year-old black girl, Ruby Bridges, being escorted by U.S. marshals into a newly desegregated New Orleans school. One of the marshals, Charles Burkes, remembers that Bridges "just marched along like a little soldier, and we're all very very proud of her."

Well, "children like Ruby were soldiers, facing angry mobs and even death threats during their daily trips to school," says The Atlantic's Jennie Rothenberg Gritz. "By 1963, when Martin Luther King shared his dream that 'little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls,' Ruby had spent more than two years in the trenches."

Before we got to the "Love Sees No Color" era of the 1990s, much less the election of a black president, the U.S. had to undergo some pretty fundamental changes. And the main thing King accomplished "was not to make white people nicer or fairer," says Hamden Rice in a 2011 Daily Kos post that went viral on Monday. (I learned about it from approving conservatives.) King's major victory was that he "ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the South." Rice's entire posting is worth a read, but here's a sample:

Yes, Dr. King had many other goals, many other more transcendent, non-racial, policy goals, goals that apply to white people too, like ending poverty, reducing the war-like aspects of our foreign policy, promoting the New Deal goal of universal employment, and so on. But his main accomplishment was ending 200 years of racial terrorism, by getting black people to confront their fears. So please don't tell me that Martin Luther King's dream has not been achieved, unless you knew what racial terrorism was like back then and can make a convincing case you still feel it today. If you did not go through that transition, you're not qualified to say that the dream was not accomplished.

That is what Dr. King did — not march, not give good speeches. He crisscrossed the South organizing people, helping them not be afraid, and encouraging them, like Gandhi did in India, to take the beating that they had been trying to avoid all their lives. Once the beating was over, we were free. [Daily Kos]

"Despite what our civil religion tells us," King's legacy "is not color blind," Rice argues. He improved "the subjective experience of life in the United States for African-Americans." And that's why "some of us who are African-Americans get a bit possessive about his legacy."

Much of the U.S. celebrates King's birthday on the third Monday of the year, around his birthday, thanks to a law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, another law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, and years of hard-fought advocacy work by King supporters. As Gandhi isn't a hero just in India, King's legacy belongs to more than African-Americans; he's now a safely ensconced American icon and a Nobel Peace Prize–winning international symbol for change through nonviolent protest.

But using MLK's words about his own black children to nebulously attack America's first black president isn't just classless, it's a whitewashing of history. Palin, as a private U.S. citizen, is entitled to her opinion. But, to paraphrase the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, she's not entitled to her own facts. In this case, Palin probably would have been better off spending MLK Day away from the laptop — and maybe, like Obama, volunteering at a soup kitchen.

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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