Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘I am happy to be the recipient of the Margaret Sanger Award’

Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘I am happy to be the recipient of the Margaret Sanger Award’ January 30, 2013

Last week, Mark Evanier tweeted, “If Martin Luther King was alive, he would agree with me that it’s shameful when people claim that if he was alive, he’d agree with them.”

The co-optation of King is frequently absurd, but not always. If you’re a pacifist follower of Jesus challenging entrenched power with courageous nonviolent action, then, yes, you get to say you’re following King’s legacy. If you’re a union organizer, a civil rights advocate, a tireless friend of the poor and the powerless, then go ahead and claim that you’re marching in the footsteps of MLK.

But as James W. McCarty III noted last week, King’s legacy can’t be claimed by those he opposed — by those who represent the very things he battled against. Like, for example, the nuclear Global Strike team of the U.S. Air Force:

They have declared that, because of the racial and religious diversity of the Air Force, King “would be proud to see our Global Strike team [part of the US nuclear defense system] … standing side-by-side ensuring the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal remain the credible bedrock of our national defense…”

I’m sure that Martin Luther King Jr. would be pleased to see a commitment to racial and religious diversity in any institution, but that was not his only message for those who wield “the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal” — weapons, McCarty notes, that King wanted to see eradicated.

I’m sorry, but you don’t get to claim the mantle of King’s moral authority while also boasting of the power of your nuclear arsenal. That’s the opposite of what he preached and the opposite of what he pursued.

And I’m sorry, but you don’t get to claim the mantle of King’s moral authority while also fighting affordable access to family planning. That is also the opposite of what King preached and the opposite of what King pursued.

And that makes this post from Christ and Pop Culture just as absurd as the MLK Day press release from the Global Strike team.

“Words are inadequate for me to say how honored I was to be the recipient of the Margaret Sanger Award,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to the Planned Parenthood Federation in 1966. “This award will remain among my most cherished possessions.”

King’s acceptance speech for that award, “Family Planning — A Special and Urgent Concern,” makes it very clear that, no, you may not claim to be an heir to King’s moral vision while fighting against access to contraception as a component of universal health care.

King honored Planned Parenthood as an ally in his struggle for justice on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. And Planned Parenthood honored him, in turn, as an ally in its struggle for justice on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.

If you’re horrified by the prospect of a mandate requiring no co-pays for preventive health care for women, then it’s really, really foolish to invoke Martin Luther King Jr. as an inspiration or an ally. Oppose his legacy if you must, but don’t pretend he’d be happy about it.


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  • EllieMurasaki

    Why couldn’t a woman get the pill without someone’s help?

    Not a woman, thank you kindly. Uterus-equipped, but not a woman.

    More to the point, my employer don’t pay me shit. I forget what was on the Walgreens receipt as the amount of money my insurance saved me when I got my most recent twelve-week supply, but it was substantially more than the fifteen-dollar copay, and far more than my budget can stand.

  • Lunch Meat

    Why couldn’t a woman get the pill without someone’s help?

    For some women, the cheapest meds don’t work–severe side effects, risk of blood clots, etc. And some women just don’t have room in their budget for even a $10/month prescription. And if you can’t afford that, you definitely can’t afford a kid. If I can’t afford birth control and end up getting pregnant, who’s going to end up paying for labor and delivery, not to mention that child’s food and health care and education and childcare, even in the best case scenario where I’m mostly able to take care of the child? Society has to pay for it. It’s much, much cheaper for society just to pay the $10/month.

  • Lori


    I really wanted to focus on the related problems of citizen response to
    unjust laws (including the problem of how to discern what laws are
    unjust) and the even thornier problem of how the rest of us should react
    when someone has a moral objection to our laws.  

    Then you shouldn’t have used a just law as an example.

  • Ellie – I see what you mean about practical inaccessibility. I unsurprisingly will continue to disagree about what the rest of society should be required to do to provide you with that need, but it does help me think about it within the context of a political community that decides it is an important public good.

    Dave – I agree with what you say as a kind of conceptual preparation, but there is still a difficulty that there is pervasive disagreement about what “legitimate” and “public” mean. After filling a library with that discussion, we then have to start in on the question of who should decide. 

  • Lori – that was always a legitimate response to the very first post. But many of CaPC’s readers have a different view about the justness of a law, probably a lot different than my own. At risk of having the previous commenter call be a jaqer, the post was supposed to force my largely evangelical readership to confront those questions. I think a first step is to distinguish between “bad policy” and “unjust.”

  • This has been an illuminating conversation and I have clarified my thinking on several matters. I thank those of you who have patiently dialogued with me. As a full time student with not insubstantial other obligations, I am going to have to leave off following this comment thread. I hope to hear from some of you again in the future.

  • Lori

      Why couldn’t a woman get the pill without someone’s help?  

    A) The employer is not helping women get the pill. The employer is paying his female employees and one of the things they’re buying with the compensation they have earned through their labor is birth control. The employer is no more helping them get the pill than your employer is helping you buy the food you ate for dinner tonight.

    B) Why can’t men get comprehensive health care without help? If that strikes you as an unreasonable or ridiculous question then you just got another answer to your question.

    But just as “that’s my religion” is not an excuse to skip a law,
    neither is “suck it, Catholics, we got our equality going on here” a
    legitimate response to a conscientious moral objection within a
    religious community. 

    Not everything that anyone claims is a moral objection can be accommodated  in law. Different needs always have to be balanced. On some issues the balance favors the Church*. On this issue it does not. That is in no small part because the Church’s position on the ACA is, as has now been pointed out in several ways, not a legitimate conscientious moral objection. If the law was mandating use of contraception by Catholics they’d have a legitimate point. It’s not, and they don’t.

    *For example, the tax exemption that the Church receives violates some of my deeply help ethical beliefs. The response to that is basically “suck it, Lori”. That’s how it goes.

  • The Chinese government spends unfathomable amounts of time, money, and
    human capital – thousands of hours of television and film every year –
    aggrandizing their own role in the past, especially in the question of
    fighting the Japanese in World War 2, and downplaying the role of

    Ditto the Soviets

    Ditto-ditto the USA

    China is hardly special here.

  • Sophistry and twaddle.

  • Lori

    Neither are the USA and the USSR. This is pretty standard practice across the board. It just tends to be a lot easier to see in other countries than in one’s own.

  •  Yes, establishing some common ground about what constitutes legitimate public interest is an important part of this.

    So, on your view, what constitutes legitimate public interest?

  • JayemGriffin

    My birth control (the Pill) is $80 without insurance. Might not sound like a lot, but that’s two tanks of gas, or two week’s worth of groceries, the better part of the electric bill, or hell, just about 1/4 of my rent. Without insurance, something has to give. Do I skip enough classes to get by on less gas? Eat less? Default on my bills for the month? Only pay 75% of my rent? OR have employer-provided health insurance that pays that particular expense and not have to make that choice?

    TL;DR- to answer your question, yes, it’s an expensive medication, and yes, some of us do need help.

  • Carstonio

    The context that you’ve been missing is that numerous Catholic employers have long included contraception coverage in their health insurance for employees, and that many states have had the requirement for some time. The controversy is almost entirely a creation of the bishops, who are pushing a political agenda and not a religious one. These men claim to speak for the Catholic employers but they do not, and it’s reasonable to suspect that this tactic is really about maintaining doctrinal discipline in their flocks.

    It’s the same with the alleged problem of pharmacists being required to dispense contraception in violation of their consciences, where we almost never hear from the pharmacists themselves, only the self-appointed spokespersons acting as conscience paladins. In both cases, “conscience” is being defined so broadly that the only way to preserve it is to live in a Catholic-only society, or in one where everyone followed Catholic teachings.

  • The_L1985

     “And if the employer isn’t paying, if the employer is simply deducting
    the entire premium from the employee paycheck and forwarding it to the
    insurer, then it hardly seems unreasonable to just have the employee buy
    his own insurance.”

    Except that the employer gets a massive “bulk discount” that the employee wouldn’t, buying insurance alone.  And that massive discount is important, because without it, a lot of currently-insured people wouldn’t be able to afford health insurance at all.

    Also, I don’t believe that my boss’s moral perspectives should have any effect on my ability to follow my conscience.  I don’t believe that premarital sex is wrong, personally–should my boss’s stance on premarital sex prevent me, an unmarried woman, from being able to purchase condoms if I choose to have premarital sex?  Why or why not?

  • The_L1985

    Here’s the other thing:  Several states had laws requiring that all insurance policies purchased in those states must cover oral contraceptives*.  Nobody complained about those laws, even though they were on the books for YEARS, and people had plenty of time to make a huge stink about it.  It was only when these laws were expanded to the federal level by the ACA that people suddenly developed a moral aversion to buying their employees health insurance that covered a pill that they don’t like.

    Personally, I like living in a world where my birth-control pills are now covered.  It means that I no longer have to pay for the privilege of not being bedridden on the first day of every menstrual cycle from anemia and abnormally-severe cramping.

    * Birth control pills are NOT an abortifacient.  When taken as directed, they prevent ovulation.  No ovulation = no egg to fertilize = no conception = nothing that could possibly be aborted.

  • The_L1985

     OK, here’s the thing.  Without insurance, prices for various brands of the Pill vary quite widely.  The generic I’ve been taking costs $10/month.  I’ve been put temporarily on brand-name BCP that cost $50 or even $98/month, before I complained because I wasn’t able to afford it at that price.  (This was before ACA took effect.)

    I’m one of the lucky women who doesn’t suffer side-effects from cheap, generic birth-control pills.  A lot of women aren’t so lucky–the whole reason there are so many different formulations of BCP is because different women react differently to the different brands.  Some women have to take the $98/month pill.  Either they have a serious condition like PMDD or endometriosis, or they simply can’t afford another baby right now.

    $98/month is a lot of money to spend.  A lot of women don’t have that kind of money just lying around.

  • Alex

    We as a society have chosen to provide health care through employment. This is a horrible way to handle health care, but it’s not changing any time soon. Since employers are filling an such an important function in society (which should be handled by the government), we need rules in place to regulate this function to ensure that individuals have the freedom to make their own choices about their health without being subject to the whims of their employer.

    This is actually an imposition on employers, it is forcing them to do things they might rather not do. But that is a price they have to pay when they chose to participate in our job market.

    Employer based health care has a number of negative consequences. Restricting the freedom of employers is one, but it also reduces the freedom of employees to quit a bad job, negotiate for better conditions, or become self employed because they are dependent on employment for health care. The ACA is an attempt to improve conditions, but it is also an unfortunate compromise that few people are completely happy with.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What makes you think the things you describe as negative consequences for the employees (which I agree they are) are bugs, not features?

  •  I think the way that the employer sees it, they are buying the insurance and then giving it to the employees, and that somehow makes it the same as putting a bowl of condoms in the break room.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     The thing is, if you believe what King believed, you can’t simply not care when a government steps outside of its authority.

    Apparently you’re unaware that by his death, King had become a flat-out socialist.

    Which ties back into the historical whitewashing discussed in this thread.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Define ‘whitewashing’ as applied in this context, because ‘erasing [the contributions of] people of color’ doesn’t seem to fit, and I need to keep hold of the Youtube link that’s King speaking about the wrongness of identifying ‘black’ with bad/nasty/evil/undesirable and ‘white’ with good/pure/desirable.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Coercive behavior is always morally wrong

    The mandate is coercive, but I didn’t mean that in pejorative sense, or at least not in the always-pejorative sense. Any time the government says “You shall,” there is coercion. Speed limits are coercive.

    Let the record note.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Our humble corner of Patheos is written for self-identifying evangelicals

    Correction. Your humble corner of Patheos is written for self-identifying evangelicals who are conservative. Fred is a self-identifying evangelical and he’s not welcome there.

  • P J Evans

     Or ‘my period is extremely irregular’ (and possibly other things along with that).

  • EllieMurasaki

    Lots and lots of reasons to be on oral contraception, yes, and desire to not conceive is only one of them. No less valid than the others, but only one of many.

  • MLK Jr was also a notorious adulterer. So, if you oppose adultery, you cannot claim MLK’s mantle or approval.

    Similarly, MLK Jr. plagiarized large portions of his doctoral dissertation.
    So, if you oppose intellectual theft, you oppose MLK Jr.

  • P J Evans

    You can be against stuff, and still support people who do those things, because those things are NOT the whole person.

  • What makes you think that jest because MLK Jr was an adulterer, he wouldn’t approve of someone who opposed adultery? That’s like saying “MLK Jr took sugar in his coffee, so if you don’t take sugar in your coffee, you oppose MLK Jr.”