This article is not complete or perfect, but I think it is an good starting place when thinking about the legacy of MLK Jr. in terms of how his narrative has been archived, marketed, fragmented, redistributed, and appropriated. I am most fascinated by the ways in which people have consciously excised parts of his vision and repackage them to best meet their needs. Language is immensely powerful.
(CNN) — The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was called a communist, an outside agitator and a drum major for righteousness.
But now a growing number of people are calling King something else: A conservative icon.
As the nation celebrates King’s national holiday Monday, a new battle has erupted over his legacy. Some conservatives are saying it’s time for them to reclaim the legacy of King, whose message of self-help, patriotism and a colorblind America, they say, was “fundamentally conservative.”
But those who marched with King and studied his work say that notion is absurd. The political class that once opposed King, they argue, is now trying to distort his message.
King’s most famous words are the crux of the disagreement.
"He was against all policies based on race," says Peter Schramm, a conservative historian. "The basis of his attack on segregation was ‘judge us by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin.’ That’s a profound moral argument."
Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a trilogy on King, says some conservatives are invoking a phantom version of King to avoid dealing with contemporary racial issues.
One of the first leaders to invoke King’s message in support of conservative ideas was Ronald Reagan, according to Stephen Prothero, who spotlights that moment in his book “The American Bible,” which examines the most famous speeches and texts in American history.
In June of 1985, Reagan cited King’s “content of our character” line from the “I Have a Dream” speech to argue in a speech opposing affirmative action that King’s vision of a colorblind society would not include racial hiring quotas.