Beware of white people talking about black people and civil rights to advance right-wing agendas. And that's what we had when Scott Powell invoked Martin Luther King to attack his version of critical race theory in his Jan. 9 column:
In King’s most famous I Have a Dream speech, delivered from Washington, D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial (Aug. 28, 1963), it was as if the Almighty was calling America to rise up and fulfill its spiritual destiny.
To the self-evident truth of all people having equal value, King added an equally timeless truth, that people "should not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Were it possible to transport King into the present, he would be shocked by the stark regression in America in the nearly three generations since he led the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
He would reject the eclipse of group, gender and ethnic identity evaluation paradigm over the individual merit and character-based approach for assessment, acceptance and advancement — whether in school admission or hiring and promotion in workplaces
King would condemn Wokeism and Critical Race Theory (CRT) because they perpetuate negative racial stereotypes, albeit in a reversal, that denigrate the white race.
He would also find them fundamentally flawed because they exacerbate division rather than bring people together through constructive dialogue and concurrently seeing all people as individuals made in God’s image.
As it so happens, Tyler Parry wrote about the kind of thing Powell is doing in a 2021 article for the African-American Intellectual History Society, after now-Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said something similar on a podcast:
McCarthy’s claim exposes how King’s legacy is sanitized by rightwing figures. He asserts that CRT does not only go against MLK’s “dream” in 1963, it goes against “everything Martin Luther King has ever told us.” This statement provides the crux of the issue. By emphasizing it goes against everything the Civil Rights leader “ever” told Americans about race relations, McCarthy and his conservative counterparts assume that the totality of King’s teachings are encapsulated in a single statement of one speech he gave in 1963.
But the question remains: where do King’s teachings stand in comparison to critical race theory? To start, it is necessary to understand that within the 2016 edition of Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, editors Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic argued that CRT followed in the “American radical tradition” of Martin Luther King, Jr. (5). They positioned Critical Race Theory as a successor to his social justice philosophy that condemned American imperialism, classism, and anti-Black racism, noting that King’s legacy had been co-opted by “a rampant, in-your-face conservatism” designed to impede racial progress (30). So, despite conservatives’ lazy efforts to place King in opposition to CRT, many of the theorists themselves wholly embraced him as a precursor to their own scholarship.
In reality, the CRT debate is just another moment in the American tradition of misappropriating MLK, ranging from the contests over affirmative action; the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement; and the debates over socialism vs. capitalism, to name a few. When CRT is no longer politically useful, conservative pundits will find another point for their fearmongering and recycle the same colorblind King as a prop to misrepresent their target. Though it is tiring, scholars and activists must continually respond to these misrepresentations on all available platforms. The true believers of the conservative cause may willfully ignore the evidence, but as we make such blogs and essays more widely available, we can reach many others and introduce them to a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who believed that achieving a better society requires an honest reckoning with history; who unapologetically fought for the downtrodden and the poor; and who envisioned a “genuine revolution in values” in creating a more just and equitable society (201).
In other words, actual scholars familiar with King believe that CRT is very much in line with King's beliefs.
Nevertheless, Powell went on to cherry-pick King for his own purposes, citing him as warning against "the dangers of groupthink" -- though the right-wing anti-CRT campaign is very much a groupthink operation.