Dr. King’s legacy is not up for grabs

In this year’s presidential primaries, the politics of identity is ubiquitous. In addition to fights over who is black, poor, or woman enough, comparisons to historical figures cover the headlines. Obama juggles comparisons to John and Bobby Kennedy, spats break out over who is most akin to Truman, and all of the Republicans are scrambling to claim Reagan’s legacy. The result is that our perceptions of the candidates are obscured by comparisons to artificial racial or gender norms, or idealized notions of history.

Recently, the comparisons took an ever more sour turn when Clinton and Obama started to argue over the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Last week, Clinton remarked that King’s dream was only realized when President Johnson began to sign legislations, which Obama claimed belittled King’s work.

The notion that one candidate could attack another on the legacy of Dr. King holds the tacit implication that one deserves to be more closely associated with his legacy than another, when in fact, neither deserves to claim Dr. King’s work for his or her own, directly or indirectly. In quarreling over Dr. King, the two leading Dems only entrench themselves further in the politics of identity.

This is not to say that Hillary and Barack should not fight about who will do best by minorities in the U.S. or who will best protest civil rights. These are excellent conversations to engage in, and both have demonstrated a commitment to civil and human rights: Barack through community organizing on the South Side of Chicago, and Hillary through working on behalf of children, families, migrant laborers, and healthcare reform.

Each of these candidates has his or her own history in the support of civil rights to stand on and it is not necessary to claim King’s. It was unfortunate that they decided to quarrel over the memory of Dr. King only a week before the day when his contributions should be receiving redoubled honor.