Jason Whitlock’s brutal misreading of Martin Luther King, Jr.

A week ago, outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis, there was a small protest in support of Mike Brown, the teenager who was shot and killed in August in Ferguson, Missouri. The protest received a lot national media attention because the protesters were confronted by some Cardinals fans, a few of whom shouted garbage like “get a job” and “go back to Africa” and all of that was captured on video.

I didn’t write anything about it at the time, in part because, in the end of the day, those counter-protesters were nothing more than a handful of idiots saying stupid shit. But leave it to Jason Whitlock, all handwringing and tsk-tsking to discover that the *real* affront to all that is good and right outside the stadium were the protesters themselves.

In a particularly outrageous column last Thursday, Whitlock said it was the protesters who were in the wrong. They were responsible for “baiting” those who hurled the epithets at them. They were the ones who represented an affront to the great legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. jr. It was the protesters, in committing the unforgivable offense of chanting things like “let’s go Mike Brown” and “this is what democracy looks like” who were engaging in an equivalent level of “ugliness” as those who told the protesters that they were, by definition, jobless and un-American. In Whitlock’s sometimes bizarre moral universe, being a bigoted moron is no worse than using the word “shit” in a demonstration about police brutality.

And in classic Limbaugh-ian fashion, Whitlock directed much of his fire at the media, allegedly in cahoots with the protesters in lampooning the racists. In other words, it’s not those who spew the bile who are the *real* problem. It’s those who don’t hold their hands and tell them they love them anyway who are really screwing up America.

So that I dot my i’s and cross my t’s, Whitlock did devote a sentence to saying that, yes, what some of the counter-protesters said was ugly. And he did claim – or imply – that the protesters themselves called for Darren Wilson’s murder, which he found particularly disturbing (though having watched the video, I can’t hear any such calls. And in a column on the sensationalist right-wing site Andrew Breitbart.com, in a piece devoted to mocking and belittling the protesters, there is no mention of demands for blood).

But the real purpose of Whitlock’s column is to give us an uninformed lecture on the tactics and legacy of Reverend King. According to Whitlock:

Dr. King was the Michael Jordan of promoting racial equality and advancing the cause of African-Americans. He killed bigots with kindness, intellect and love. His dignified, nonviolent approach to civil disobedience is primarily responsible for the freedoms many African-Americans take for granted today.

Today’s two-bit sloganeers, in purported contrast to everything King believed, scream “no justice, no peace” as part of what Whitlock calls the “uncivil rights” movement. They troll, they bait, they provoke, they scream their own profanities. In this way, they are no better than the bigots whose ignorance it’s so easy to call forth.

The problem with Whitlock’s potted view of King is that it is simply wrong. In his day, King was lambasted constantly for being a provocateur, an impatient man unwilling and unable to appreciate that change only comes slowly, that patience is a virtue, and that deliberately stirring up trouble in places like Birmingham, Alabama made King just as responsible for Bull Connor’s attack dogs and firehoses as was that city’s commissioner of public safety himself. These weren’t the harrumphings of the Klan, by the way. They were the common admonitions of the so-called white moderates, for whom King had famously harsh words, seeing in them perhaps the greater stumbling block to black emancipation than the KKKer. King derided their easily offended sense of decorum, their misplaced aversion to tension and conflict, the latter of which he believed essential if the movement was to achieve its goals:

I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

Indeed, King understood full well that his choice of targets and tactics might well provoke violence and, indeed, believed that, at times, this would be necessary for the realization of true emancipation. This is why many Americans questioned or openly scorned the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to King (the 50th anniversary of which passed last week and which formed the hook for Whitlock’s ill-conceived column). And King himself only became more impatient and disillusioned over time with the pace and possibility of real transformation in American society.

In sum, Whitlock’s rendering of King has little to do with the reality and context in which King himself lived and died.

In an appearance on Dan LeBatard’s show last Friday, Whitlock made the baffling argument that the protest and its coverage were nothing more than capitalism at work, presumably because the demonstrators were just trying to draw attention to themselves and the media saw an opportunity to post some clickable content. But Does Whitlock think the protesters are now going to ink book deals to tell their stories to cash in on their “fame?”

Whereas there’s no real money in staging small protests, you know what is a lucrative business? Whitlock deputizing himself as the moral scold of black people who dare to be impolite. Whitlock accuses the protesters of “trolling.” That’s rich. Which is exactly what Whitlock’s become by trolling African Americans to salve the conscience of his mainly white audiences.

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