Many people were shocked that two professional newscasters would have the same verbal slip in the same month, replacing the last name of the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. with a racial slur. I was only surprised that this was still happening in 2019, because I remembered that this exact “slip” has been going on since Dr. King was alive.
In case you missed it, twice this month, local TV personalities have used the same slur in reference to Martin Luther King, Jr (NSFW language ahead, unless you work for a white supremacist organization). On January 4, WHEC New York meteorologist Jeremy Kappell referred to a local park as “Martin Luther Coon Park”, before immediately correcting himself by saying “King.” He apologized later on Facebook, chalking it up to a simple slip of the tongue, but he was eventually fired. Reactions were mixed, with TV personalities like Al Roker, America’s most famous meteorologist, and CNN anchor Don Lemon defending Kappell and accepting the idea that it was just an unfortunate accident. Two weeks later, in St. Louis this time, it happened again: KTVI anchor Kevin Steincross referenced “Martin Luther Coon, Jr.” in an early morning report, and apologized on air a few hours later for what he said was an unintentional mispronunciation.
Growing up as a black child in South Carolina, a state where it took the murder of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist to spur the governor –rising GOP star Nikki Haley – to remove the Confederate Flag from the State House grounds in 2015 (spoiler alert: the Confederacy lost), I was familiar with “coon” and a bunch of other racial epithets (not to be confused with racial epitaphs, which unfortunately, have also been employed against Dr. King). It’s one of many slurs that were commonly thrown around by racist white southerners (I’ve never quite understood why there was a need to have so many racial slurs against a particular group; in addition to being morally repugnant, it seems redundant – you don’t like us, we get it).
Although I’ve heard the word a bunch of times (primarily from older black Southerners who’ve either said it in reference to the type of hate they’ve had inflicted upon them or appropriated it themselves because racism is that insidious), I distinctly remember the first time I heard it in the context of the MLK “slip.” It’s featured in the famous Civil Rights Movement documentary Eyes on the Prize, specifically in a news clip of Selma, Alabama Mayor Joseph Smitherman denouncing “outside agitator” King in 1965:
Now compare that to Kappell’s “slip:
Not only is the phrase the same, but even the “correction” is similar to that used by Smithermann in the 60s. It has an air of dog-whistle politics: the slur being targeted as a message to a certain subset of the viewing audience, while the “correction” allows for plausible deniability (Mayor Smitherman claimed it was an honest accident, too).
I honestly thought that this slur was a relic of the past that had grown outdated, but apparently, I was wrong. Reporter Yoojin Cho of KXAN-Austin tweeted a 2017 video of a Confederate Flag supporter in York, SC using the slur almost unapologetically (“I shouldn’t have said that” he says under his breath with a smirk) while being interviewed by a number of reporters. (Actually, just watch again for yourself):
— Yoojin Cho (@Yoojin_Cho) August 24, 2017
(Hmm, apparently this guy, an aspiring politician in North Carolina, says such things pretty regularly).
I don’t know Steincross or Kappell. They could have been practicing the same kind of dog-whistling like tactics of Smitherman and Walker, or they may have mistakenly repeated a slur that they heard at some point in the past and subconsciously associated with MLK. In other words, it’s unclear whether there was malice or intent, and I do think that matters a lot. I’ve talked before about the politics of outrage and how I don’t think people should be summarily executed in the court of public opinion for their worst mistake without being given an opportunity to correct themselves and grow, and it would be hypocritical for me to have a different standard here because I’m in the offended group.
I don’t know what types of repercussions Steincross or Kappell should face, but I do think that the process of going forward for them, and for us, should include an honest recognition of the history of the term and the social context (i.e. racism) that both created the slur against King (and African Americans more generally) and has kept it alive all these years later, including a sincere reflection on what motivations, intentional or subconscious, led to these words coming out of these two newscasters’ mouths.
Rev. King centered his life and campaign of nonviolent resistance around the Christian principles of forgiveness and reconciliation, and his daughter, Dr. Bernice King, lays out a great plan for holding individuals accountable while allowing them to be “rehabilitated”:
Kappell, after his firing, has suggested he’s open to apologizing further, although he remains defensive about his firing based on a “rush to judgment.” Kappell and Steincross’ unfortunate remarks, and hopefully even the two men themselves, can contribute to important conversations that help us move forward and put not just these ugly words, but the spirit underlying them, behind us.