Matt Barnum’s most recent column on Loretta Ross’s keynote speech (“Ross’s Keynote Remarks Don’t Do MLK Day Justice,” 1/25/08) was, frankly, disappointing, both in its characterization of Mrs Ross’s speech and in its analysis of King’s legacy.
Barnum argues that “what we should be honoring is King’s specific ideal...a non-racist society.” Unfortunately, achieving this “specific ideal” is not removed from multitudes of other issues in society. As a result, Ross raised a number of points—from economic and environmental issues to abortion rights—in her speech. She suggested that King’s “civil rights” extended into “human rights.”
This nuance was lost on Barnum, who writes that “by Ross’s definition, human rights are synonymous with liberalism.” He then accuses her of using King as a catch-all argument for a host of “Democratic Party” positions. He bemoans the fact that more conservative rights, like “property rights...or the right to keep what you earn” are left aside. He concludes this line of argument by noting: “Even if we stipulate that King would be a liberal Democrat today, he didn’t create a legacy based on support for a higher minimum wage.”
This final statement exemplifies the whole of Barnum’s case. It is blatantly false. In fact, in 1968, King was an integral force in organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, which focused solely on economic issues, including, incidentally, a higher minimum wage. He did so without the support of other civil rights leaders, who felt the Campaign was too ambitious. Thus, it is clear that King himself strove for economic justice for all; we need not evaluate his legacy.
In sum, Barnum takes an unfortunate step to delineate King’s legacy so narrowly. Rather, as Ross suggests, it is multifaceted and fluid—not a single specific aim.
Class of 2011