Mandatory MLK-Day Online Re-Reading List

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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71 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:

    “But we found that, ironically, exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, and not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.”

    This does not seem ironic. Leaving aside conscious, active, explicit racial animus, when you see a group of people who “look like you” and are asked, “How mean should we be to these people?” it would seem reasonable to expect that they are going to have a different answer than when asked that question about a group of people that does not “look like you”.

    Mind you, none of this is to say that racial bias — implicit or explicit; conscious or unconscious; active or inactive; inherent or learned — isn’t a real issue. It’s just that we should stop being surprised at where/when/how it manifests. And should take this into account when actually attempting to address the various issues.Report

  2. Mike Schilling says:

    Yeah, conservatives don’t say MLK is a communist anymore. Now they say he’s like Hitler.Report

    • Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Today is also Confederate Heroes Day in Texas, the only state to fight two wars to preserve the institution of slavery.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Our man Jamelle points out:

      As a Virginian, I understand the drive to praise Lee. His honor is an undeniable and worthy quality. But we shouldn’t forget what Lee fought for.

      I don’t feel any such compulsion. Lee was a deeply intelligent and thoughtful man, one who with neither false humility nor narcissism about his own abilities understood what his participation on one side or the other could mean.

      He deliberated about what was at stake, and why it was being staked. And the result of that deliberation was that he committed treason in defense of slavery.

      I can find no honor in that. What noble, honorable thing did Lee do to deserve him a better verdict from history than those awarded to Aaron Burr or Benedict Arnold?Report

      • Notme in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Get it right Burt. Lee couldn’t raise his sword against Virginia, his home state. At that time folks saw themselves more as state citizens than as citizens of the US.Report

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        That would explain why 40% of West Point grads from Virginia fought for the Union.

        And of treason in defense of slavery isn’t enough to keep us from celebrating his birthday, maybe the fact that he was a slave owner, and a cruel one (though I repeat myself) should be?Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Then he could have sat it out.

        But it’s not right to say that because he was a Virginian, Lee couldn’t take up arms against Virginia. Other southerners did not erect such a barrier to honorable service of the United States.

        Winfield Scott was a Virginian and he was the architect of the grand plan to destroy the Confederacy and who wanted Lee to be the field commander because he was himself physically unable to fill that role himself.

        George Thomas, a Virginian, is thought by some to have been the most able commander in the Union Army. (Not sure I agree but now we’re both beyond my ken and in the realm of opinion.)

        David Farragut, a Tennessean, led the Union Navy against the Confederacy without hesitation or quarter after his state seceded. His heroism at the battle of Mobile Bay is celebrated in the Navy to this day.

        Lee wasn’t bound to fight for Virginia. He chose to do what he did.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Burt Likko says:


        You do realize that there were Germans who fought to overthrown the Nazis in WWII?

        People can fight against their own countries, and there is honor in it when their country is in the wrong.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Even if we accept Lee being a patriot (and there is an argument along the lines NotMe says), he was a patriot fighting against the nation to which Virginia currently belongs. We shouldn’t celebrate patriots who fought on the wrong side. (And that’s even leaving out the cause his state was fighting for at the time was fighting for, which is no small thing.)Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Burt Likko says:


        Let’s compare Lee to the Founders. They fought a war because they couldn’t get representation in the legislature that governed them. Lee fought a war despite his state being over-represented (due to the 3/5 clause) in the legislature that governed them.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Burt Likko says:

        “Lee wasn’t bound to fight for Virginia. He chose to do what he did.”

        There is really something rich in arguing that Lee was COMPELLED to fight in favor of slavery.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Burt Likko says:

        David Farragut, a Tennessean, led the Union Navy against the Confederacy without hesitation or quarter after his state seceded.

        To be fair, the Tennessee navy didn’t have much going for it.Report

      • Zac in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Lee was a traitor who deserves to remembered as such. If Virginians are looking for someone from that era to venerate, they could do a lot worse (IMHO) than John Brown.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


        Or they can honor Mr. or Mrs. Loving.Report

      • Zac in reply to Burt Likko says:

        @saul-degraw We already have a holiday for that, it’s in the middle of next month. 😉Report

      • James K in reply to Burt Likko says:


        When you think about it, it would be like if Germany spend lots of time idolising Rommel. It’s not that he was a bad guy really, but still it would be in bad taste.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Burt Likko says:

        There are monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest all over the South. Given his role as founder of the KKK, that’s not so different from German monuments to Rommel’s boss.Report

      • Zac in reply to Burt Likko says:

        @mike-schilling Every time I’m reminded of that, it disturbs me all over again. I think it says a lot about the culture of the South that it venerates guys like Lee and Forrest, and none of it is good.Report

      • Guy in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Honestly, I think Benedict Arnold deserves more sympathy than we give him. Certainly more than we give Lee; Arnold couldn’t turn around without getting metaphorically kicked by the Continental Army.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Burt Likko says:

        There are monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest all over the South

        Not just in the South. You’ve got Nathan’s hot dogs in the Northeast, a Bedford, Indiana, in the Midwest, and there are National Forrests all over the west.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Give it another 50 years or so, then the money will run out.
        All it bloody well says about the south is that the only thing the Cavaliers knew how to do right was propaganda.

        Folks: With respect to Lee — he was first in his class at West Point. He had family in Virginia, didn’t he? Having no choice isn’t exactly the best way to phrase “chose his family over his country” if that was indeed what he did (I got no proof either way, but I can see his decision being a bit more forced, and less patriotic).Report

  3. Kolohe says:

    I gotta dissent from your non-inclusion of Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Everyone knows the speeches, but relatively few have actually read that missive either in part of its entirety. It does as much to deflate the warm and fuzzy parts of the King myth as anything else, and is the definitive how-to manual on – if it’s possible – fixing a broken political system without (over) watering the tree of liberty.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Kolohe says:

      Oh, this was not a request not to read King; I think he was a fantastic writer. (I always thought his talent was unappreciated in the same way McCartney’s always was — always being held up and compared to a cooler and more colorful counterpart he’s inexorably linked to.)

      I just think a lot of times when King gets brought up, it’s done in a “and then we fixed all of that” vibe, and I wanted to go a different direction.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Who is the “cooler and more colorful counterpart”? Kennedy? Malcolm X?Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I was thinking X. I almost always see the two of them held up and some kind of black civil rights dying and yang, even though I never felt that was a very complete picture. (And I also kind of always assumed doing the Martin v. Malcolm was a white thing — but I don’t actually know if that’s true or not.)Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        That was my sense, too… the ying/yang thing… though I don’t know all that much about it, either the sanitized history book version or the true version. I know King beyond the ‘teddy bear’ image he is often reduced to in part because a former teacher of mine worked directly with him (she was with him the night his house was attacked) and have had the good fortune to hear her speak on numerous occasions. But I don’t know much about X. I just wasn’t sure to whom you were referring. My assumption was X but I know that the Kennedy brothers are often linked to King and both were also know for their oratory/writing skills (well, if you believe they actually wrote what their name is attached to).Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I read *about* X in high school, and what I learned back then was basically a pretty cardboard, pro-violence guy who acted as a counterpoint to what we were learning about King. The message was simple and obvious: King was great because he wasn’t X, and X was not great because he wasn’t King.

        I was in my 20s when I finally read X’s autobiography, and it was a revelation. I don’t know if they teach kids today about X like they did when I was a kid (or if they teach about him at all), but I hope they do better. What I loved about his auto-bio was learning who he never was just this one thing. He was constantly evolving; every experience he had he seemed to learn from and grow from. If we are going to have a holiday to celebrate a civil rights era from that time, King is the absolute right choice. But if I could sit for an hour or two, break bread and just talk to anyone from that era, I think I’d choose X.

        This might no t make sense, but as a young white dude me King to me was kind of like the Jesus I saw most Christians talk about on TV: Amazing and wonderful, but so perfect as to be kind of one dimensional in a way that not being Christian (or black) I could never quite relate to, except symbolically. Reading X for me was like reading The Last Temptation of Christ — it added such a layer of real humanity in its strengths and weaknesses that it felt almost spiritual, and helped me grow in a way reading the one-dimensional stories never could.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I should probably read that.

        Last year, when I had Mrs. Lacey (my teacher whom I still call by that name despite being 30-years-old and a teacher myself because, goddamnit, she’s Mrs. Frickin’ Lacey!) visit my school last year, I had her meet directly with the 8th graders for a Q&A. They study the CRM so what better opportunity than to sit with someone who was on the front lines? Anyway, one of them asked something about what she thought King’s best quality was. I’m sure they were expecting an answer regarding leadership or speaking skills. Her response? “His sense of humor.” She then shared stories about some of the jokes he’d tell. It was amazing to see. To have him fleshed out as a human… not just the amazing leader and world-changed her was… but as a man, a husband, a father, a friend, a guy with a great sense of humor. I hope it resonated with them. I was fortunate to have heard similar stories from her (though my school as a student severely underutilized her since she was “just” a science teacher by trade) and I hope they resonate with the newer crop that I have the great privilege to introduce to her and the world she connects us to.Report

      • Chris in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Perhaps unfortunately, King basically ignored X’s repeated invitations to get together and possibly work together.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        SO you’re saying X was Garfunkel?Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Ask Mrs. Lacey to do a guest post telling some of those stories. I am dead serious about this.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Tod Kelly says:


        Unlikely, if only because she is well into her 70s and I can barely get her to reply to an email.

        I do have video of her presentation (school-wide, not Q&A with 8th grade) from last year and will try to get as much video of it this year. If anyone smarter than me wants to edit through that and put something together, I’ll get the appropriate permissions.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        That would be great. (Unfortunately, when it comes to editing and processing video, I’m not smarter than anyone.)Report

      • Chris in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        A letter from X to King, from 1963:

        Dear Sir:

        The present racial crisis in this country carries within it powerful destructive ingredients that may soon erupt into an uncontrollable explosion. The seriousness of this situation demands that immediate steps must be taken to solve this crucial problem, by those who have genuine concern before the racial powder keg explodes.

        A United Front involving all Negro factions, elements and their leaders is absolutely necessary.
        A racial explosion is more destructive than a nuclear explosion.

        If capitalistic Kennedy and communistic Khrushschev can find something in common on which to form a United Front despite their tremendous ideological differences, it is a disgrace for Negro leaders not to be able to submerge our “minor” differences in order to seek a common solution to a common problem posed by a Common Enemy.

        On Saturday, August 10th, from 1 – 7 p.m., the Muslims are sponsoring another giant outdoor rally at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue. Two previous rallies this summer at the same location, attracted 5000 to 7000 Harlemites respectively. We expect our largest crowd this time, rain or shine.

        We are inviting several Negro leaders to give their analysis of the present race problem and also their solution. We will also explain Mr. Muhammad’s solution.

        There will be no debating, arguing, criticizing, or condemning. I will moderate the meeting and guarantee order and courtesy for all speakers. This rally is designed not only to reflect the spirit of unity, but it will give you a chance to present your views to the largest and most explosive elements in Metropolitan New York.

        If you cannot come, please send your representative. Invitations to participate have been sent to: Dr. Gardner C. Taylor, Dr. Adam C. Powell, James Farmer, Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, Dr. Ralph Bunche, Dr. Joseph H. Jackson and James Forman.

        An immediate reply would be appreciated.


      • Chris in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Also, those who think of Dr. King as some sort of moderate, rather than a revolutionary, should compare much of what he called for with Newton’s Ten-Point Program. They diverge, but not by as much as some would probably like to think.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        This might no t make sense, but as a young white dude me King to me was kind of like the Jesus I saw most Christians talk about on TV: Amazing and wonderful, but so perfect as to be kind of one dimensional in a way that not being Christian (or black) I could never quite relate to, except symbolically.

        Tod – Have you seen Selma yet? I very highly recommend it. One of the movie’s strengths is how effectively it shows King as a real person, with doubts and fears and practical political tactics, rather than the perfect one-dimensional figure.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        @katherinemw I haven’t, so thanks for the recommendation. Sadly, it might be a few weeks before I’ll be able to get to it, but I will put it on my “to do” list.Report

  4. Burt Likko says:

    In response to the challenge in the OP, I read the public summary of the Stanford study. Our Tod didn’t even quote the more disturbing result:

    Hetey and Eberhardt showed 164 white New Yorkers statistics about the prison population.

    The New York residents read about black inmates either in terms of the national incarceration rate (40 percent of prisoners are black) or the New York City rate (60 percent.) Next, they were asked about their support for the stop-and-frisk policy.

    About 33 percent of the participants who saw the lower national statistic were willing to sign a petition to end the [stop-and-frisk] policy. But only 12 percent of those who saw the higher city rate of black incarceration were willing to sign the petition.

    In other words, when presented with evidence that a policy by which people were a) searched by the police without probable cause and b) selected for search in a racially disproportionate manner, and the result that c) it resulted in adding half again to the proportion of blacks sent to jail, the number of people who said “I have a problem with that” dropped from 33% to 12%.

    That’s fishing scary.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Burt Likko says:


      Again… when you live in a county that beats you over the head with the message that brown folks are inherently criminal and come from a species that has some biologically-ingrained tendencies towards tribalism, most American humans see that data and don’t think, “That’s a travesty of injustice!” They think, “Seems like that program is working,” and/or “Doesn’t effect me.” And almost all of that is happening on a subconscious level. That is why institutionalized and systemic racial bias is so pernicious.Report

  5. Notme says:


    Kudos for finding a way to bash republicans in a MLK tribute. Why should I read TNC’s call for reparations when King never called for them?Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Notme says:

      What republicans did I bash?Report

      • Notme in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Basically the entire second paragraph.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Man, you guys really need to get your story straight.

        Post by Me: Republicans need to stop listening to these talk radio hosts.

        You Guys: Why do you equate the GOP with a talk show host? We have never even heard of this Fox News you mention! They have nothing to do with us!

        Post by Me: Here’s something a talk radio show host said — what a dunderhead.

        You Guys: You hate Republicans! Those hosts represent us! A criticism of them is a criticism of all of us!Report

      • Zac in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Things like this are why I like having Notme around. She’s a good visceral reminder of how mouth-breathingly stupid the average conservative is, without having to deep-dive into hellpits like the Daily Caller or

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        @zac Dude! I haven’t seen you around in a while. How are your insides? All healed and better?Report

      • Zac in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Yeah, I’m all healed up — the surgeon did an excellent job and left a very minimal scar. Funnily, it actually aligns with a nearly-identical scar I’ve had since infancy in a way that forms an “equals” sign, so now I can do math equations on my belly.

        And also I don’t know if you saw, but in the comments on your Black Mirror S1E1 review, Glyph graciously asked me to do a guest post on an episode of Black Mirror, which I’m pretty excited about because it’s always been a fantasy of mine to one day write a guest post here (my fantasies are weird). I intend to do it on White Christmas, the special that just came out last month, because there are a couple of notions in play there that I think would make for a fascinating discussion.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Notme says:

      I don’t see that Tod is bashing Republicans, or perhaps more accurately, conservatives.

      At most, Tod implies that contemporary conservative respect for Dr. King is insincere and their concern for black history is shallow. For conservatives partisans, this seems like a perfect setup to playing the BSDI card.

      You should read TNC’s article because the “reparations” discussed therein aren’t necessarily what you think they are. He might surprise you. He did me.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Yeah, and I don’t even think that about most Republicans or conservatives. I just think that about talk show hosts.

        I never thought they were very representative about their flocks’ take join MLK back when they used to bash him. I kind of assumed it was one of those things where the holiday was something they had coded as “liberal” and so bashing him was just what they did as a matter of course.

        Outside of some people in my parents’ generation and older, I have never met anyone — anyone — who was conservative that didn’t speak in the highest regards for King. I think this is largely why talk show hosts eventually stopped, and decided to go the only other way they could think of to bash liberals about MLK — create a claim that he was anti-progressive and would have been campaigning for Ted Cruz if he were alive today.Report

      • Notme in reply to Burt Likko says:

        I read it the first time there was a post about it here which wasnt even that ling ago.Report

  6. Vikram Bath says:

    Instead, I am going to charge you with reading — and grappling with — the issues that I believe Dr. King would most like us to be dealing with today in his name.

    Without saying anything bad about the excellent list, I want to question the practice of trying to infer what a man who has been dead for 47 years might support today. I think the temptation is too great to simply substitute one’s own beliefs since they are clearly great, and surely a great man would support great ideas, right?Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Vikram Bath says:

      I’m not sure I agree. I mean, it’s possible you’re on to something here, but since I’m not saying King would or wouldn’t endorse any these items, well… I feel like I’m on pretty solid ground here.

      Suggesting that King would be interested in (and a part of the discussion on) controversial issues that concern black americans were he alive today doesn’t really seem the same to me as saying if Lincoln were alive right now he would totally be in favor the Affordable Care Act.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I hesitate to bring up The Boondocks but… well, there was an excellent episode of The Boondocks that discussed an alternate history where MLK Jr. was not killed but merely put into a coma by James Earl Ray… and what happened when MLK Jr. woke up (right before 9/11).

        There is a lot of hot air expelled by white people over the whole “why don’t black people criticize black people?” thing and that displays a hell of a lot of easily fixable (if not willful) ignorance. Perhaps many of those folks think “why don’t they criticize black people the way that I do?” Anyway, the episode shots as indiscriminately as Dick Cheney and everybody catches some birdshot to the face… but, back to the point, if we’re thinking about “WWMLKJD?”, that episode needs to be discussed as well.

        As for why I hesitated… well, it feels like getting a personal and intimate insight into another culture’s conversation with itself. There are criticisms you can give yourself among members of the in-group and criticisms you can give yourself when surrounded by the out-group and the two sets of criticisms may not overlap at all. This episode feels like eavesdropping.

        That said, if you can get past that, you’ll find yourself depressed as hell after you laugh for a while.Report