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I frequently look forward to the attention Martin Luther King Day brings to race in America, only to be disappointed when the date finally rolls around. As a black man who often ponders how and why race politics play out the way they do, I eagerly welcome the rest of the country joining in for a day. But as it turns out, the contributions made to the dialogue on race on MLK Day tend to be thin, and to belong to just a few categories. Three of the most frequent, in my opinion, are below.

  • What Would MLK Do?

Let me confess: The “If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive” sentiments that will invariably crop up today kind of irk me. At 82, King’s undoubtedly tired ghost is trotted out every MLK holiday to do battle with whatever sociopolitical beast we happen to be most afraid of. Though well-intentioned enough, this rote practice ends up diminishing the man we mean to exalt by making him the apotheosis of some kind of blanket idealism. King deserves more.

  • The One Cool Black Guy I Know

If some are guilty of using King as a foil on MLK Day, the holiday inspires others—usually conservatives—to trot him out like their one black friend. In an effort to not appear racist, they identify themselves with King’s message of hope, without actually identifying themselves with the anti-racism he exemplified, let alone his radical economic message (it was, after all, the Poor People’s Campaign that brought him to Memphis in April 1968) or his pacifism, which led him to oppose the Vietnam War. As Sarah Palin teaches us via Facebook post, generalities are enough:

Today is a day to reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King dedicated himself to justice and the struggles of an imperfect world. In the face of fierce opposition, he stood up for the oppressed, and he ultimately sacrificed all for equality and freedom. His was a remarkable life of love and service for all mankind. His work must continue.

Note that Palin managed to talk about a civil rights leader who fought for racial equality without mentioning either term.

  • Put On Your Work Boots

Yet another King meme easily spotted around the Web today uses King as an organizing tool. Here, King and his legacy amount to a sanitized political activism based in volunteerism. Though it’s always good to help out, starting a community garden isn’t exactly reminiscent of the movements that shook the country in the 1960s. Often, when King acted, it was in defiance of powerful political and cultural institutions, and there was blood in the street.

These ways of addressing King’s legacy aren’t exactly bad; they just come up short on a day that could be used to move us toward a more sophisticated understanding of the man and his work. Of course, it’s only been 25 years that the federal government has even recognized the holiday, and plenty of businesses—including Washington City Paper—still don’t close for it. So maybe it’s not just the rhetoric that comes up short.

Photo by Marion S. Trikosko [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons