Hillary's History Lesson: Intro to MLK 101

01/18/2008 05:12 pm 17:12:00 | Updated May 25, 2011

Today we'll celebrate the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During the past week, Dr. King's accomplishments were seemingly called into question, touching off a litany of exchanges between two contenders for the Democratic nomination. Never mind a truce has been called for the greater good of the party; the legacy of Dr. King should not have been besmirched in the first place.

Typically, I celebrate Dr. King's birthday by attending the annual tribute at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Featured guest speakers in the past have included Hillary Rodham Clinton during her then-Senate campaign. So imagine my astonishment over Sen. Clinton's recent comments about Dr. King. She said, "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done." Shortly thereafter, Sen. Clinton began to backpedal, saying that her remarks failed to capture what she attempted to convey.

But the fallout from Sen. Clinton's remarks was already underway. There was Donna Brazile, former adviser to Al Gore, voicing her disappointment over the comments. Representative James E. Clyburn (D-SC), the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, cautioned against minimizing the contribution and accomplishments of this time period in history. He said, "I encourage the candidates to be sensitive about the words they use." I watched Cong. Clyburn this past Monday night as he weighed in further on the issue on PBS television's Charlie Rose.

It is easy to comprehend why members of the African-American community take offense to Sen. Clinton's comments. Attempts at hinging Dr. King's accomplishments on President Johnson's passage of the Civil Rights Act not only diminishes the sacrifices made by Dr. King and other civil rights activists, but also reeks of cultural misappropriation -- that is, the indiscriminate or exploitative adoption of elements of another culture's tradition or, in this case, another culture's history.

When I think of Dr. King, the memory that most readily comes to mind is the "I Have a Dream" speech he delivered on August 28, 1963 at the massive march he organized in Washington, D.C. In the speech, Dr. King outlined his vision for a future America. Ironically enough, forty-five years after his speech was delivered, we've inched closer to the realization of the dream. Notably enough, this year a woman and an African-American man are two main contenders for the Democratic nomination, thanks in large part to the efforts of Dr. King. Lest we forget, let's give credit where credit is due.