To my knowledge, I’ve never quoted Martin Luther King.
I’ve also never quoted Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Bobby or John Kennedy, all men I admire just like King. In fact, outside of the occasional quip (quips are timeless), I pretty much try never to quote any historic figure.
Here’s my problem with quoting quotable people: it gets you into trouble. It gets a writer into trouble because the very fact of their quotability means they had a knack for a turn of phrase — about a lot of things. But, like most human beings, they had conflicting ideas or, like every thoughtful person, they had ideas that evolved and changed over time. So, when you choose a particular sentence you like to support an argument, there’s a good chance somebody will throw back a conflicting sentence from the same person to refute you.
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts makes that point today. Apparently (and this was news to me) conservatives like to use MLK’s most famous line about judging people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Pitts mines the MLK archives to come up with King quotes that would seem to support race-conscious policies like affirmative action and reparations and which question the value of the free market.
Pitts’ point is that conservatives shouldn’t be so quick to try to use King in defense of their own ideas when he also said things they won’t like so much. But, of course, it works both ways. Pitts also needs to reckon with statements from King that don’t necessarily line up well with current liberal fashion.
Which brings us back to the practice of cherry picking quotes from historic figures to back up our arguments. That always struck me as a weak and somewhat lazy way to make an argument. You’re asking your reader to say, ‘oh, he quoted Martin Luther King, so he must be right,’
Better, I think, to rely on our own ability to summon facts and reason to make a case, then to lean on the rhetorical equivalent of a statue. The dead hero can’t speak for himself anymore, and wise and intelligent people by their very nature have views that evolve and are informed by events. Let us all humbly admit that we have no idea at all what MLK or any other dead hero would say about the issues we confront today. And trying to shoe-horn old quotes to fit current situations is risky business.
I respect Martin Luther King, but I suspect he’d encourage us to think for ourselves.
Welcome to the 333rd day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!