Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a great deal. Not just his legacy, though that’s part of it, but how that legacy has been received, how it’s been manipulated to fit a rapidly reconfiguring status quo.
We all have an idea of the kind of man Dr. King was, reinforced by the slow parade of teachers - from elementary to high school - discussing the salient points of his most widely known public address in which he talks about his dream for the nation and its black citizens. These formative years ultimately develop the lens through which we reflect critically on history. The old cliche is true, in that those with the power to write our history also have the power to shape how it will be packaged for future generations. Words are so powerful, even more so than memory, because once memory fades, words are all that remain to make sense of our communal past.
I’d submit that the view we have of Martin Luther King, Jr. is largely framed through glasses that have been whitewashed by those wielding the words through which history is passed down. We aren’t encouraged to see him as a revolutionary, as the radical catalyst of social change, as an end in and of himself. Instead, this formidable man is neutered and made safe by the way we’ve learned to view him today. He has become a means to society’s wider, and less noble ends. Even his words are dulled to suit purposes that are antithetical to the spirit of the movement he championed.
We never speak of Dr. King’s radicalism, which underpinned everything he did. We only speak of his civil disobedience, and only in a way in which that benign turn the other cheek mentality is indicative of his inherent humble nature. To accept violence without responding with violence is a heightened form of self control, a heightened form of obedience to the law, we’re told, from the time we first learn to read until the time we begin to formulate our own arguments, and society values an obedient negro above all else. A negro who knows his place. In this way, Dr. King’s words - sharp enough to cut through the complacency of his era when he uttered them - lose their meaning, and with it, their power.
A funny thing happens then. The microscope of history tightens its focus, eliminating the more troublesome aspects of Dr. King’s persona, and zeros in on what is most palatable to the wider - i.e. whiter - audience: a man who dreams of brotherhood, togetherness, and a world in which his little black children can hold hands with little white children. A world in which his very color can be whitewashed out of existence.
In retrospect, Dr. King is conceived as a benevolent figure, one behind whom every like minded white person would have proudly rallied. But this is disingenuous at best, straight up lies at worst. We only have to look towards the Black Lives Matter movement to see how the bulk of white folks would have responded to a throng of black people demanding freedom. We only have to look at the way Colin Kaepernick’s nonviolent actions are received by the general (white) public. These are protests that fully embody Dr. King’s call for nonviolent direct action, the kind of action that cannot be ignored. The kind of action that forces society as a whole to fully face the existence of systemic racism festering in all facets of American life. In this way, nonviolent action feels like a slap to the face. But Dr. King understood that this tension was necessary to create change, that waiting for equal rights to eventually arrive was a fool’s errand. Complete disruption of the status quo was essential because “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Change is born through upheaval. It isn’t comfortable, and it doesn’t fit the timeline of the oppressor. The March on Washington culminated with Dr. King’s most famous speech, and if I had a dollar for every time a white person told me that black people today should take what they mistakenly believe was Dr. King’s advice in the I Have a Dream speech, I would have enough to open a money market account with a competitive interest rate. These are the people who seem to forget that Dr. King’s protests often led to arrests. They forget that his protests were often met with brutal violence from the police. They forget that the boycotts for which Dr. King advocated brought entire cities to their knees. The man didn’t just have a dream, he had a plan, and white America hated him for it.
There are those who say Colin Kaepernick should just shut up and play. There are those who look disdainfully at Black Lives Matter activists, writing them off as criminals, thugs, ingrates. There are those who scoff whenever a person of color points out the network of systemic racism snaking up from the very foundation of this country to infect every institution, every social interaction. There are also those who see the injustices with clarity, but are content to remain silent as long as they are not directly affected. Many of these people hold Dr. King in high regard. Because he’s safe to venerate through those whitewashed glasses. He’s no longer a threat to the current social order. He has been fully assimilated into white American culture. His radicalism has been erased from our collective memory, leaving only the palatable parts of his legacy behind.
And, yet, Dr. King’s words in another, less widely quoted piece of writing still resonate, as though he wrote them only moments ago:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I have paraphrased the above sentiment in many a conversation with all kinds of white folks, telling them that I was less concerned with the outwardly racist and more concerned with those who can’t understand the urgency of the current situation because they themselves are not at risk. Why stand with Black Lives Matter activists when you don’t have to worry about your black son, husband, or father being stopped by police and beaten or shot without cause? Why be uncomfortable for the seconds it takes a black NFL player to drop to one knee during the Star Spangled Banner when you can simply continue to exist within a cushy, disaffected bubble?
I have had white people tell me there are more important causes for which to fight. That racial justice can wait while we figure out these other, more vital matters. They seem willfully resistant to Dr. King’s ‘fierce urgency of now’. Because for those of us struggling beneath the heavy burden of systemic racism, there is no better time than right now to act, to fight, to demand the rights promised to all men and women in this country’s founding documents.
How can you read Dr. King’s words and not see his disappointment in the apathy of so-called white allies? In their unwillingness to truly invest in the struggle for freedom and equality for all? I feel that disappointment every day, and I worry it will turn into frustrated hostility, though Dr. King warns against that too, bidding us to never “satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
Dr. King kept from sinking into that pit of listless despair through his abiding faith that change would come, that people of color would be delivered to the Promised Land, though he might not live to see it himself. He advised: “oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.” But this doesn’t come without struggle, without people willing to fight, even if it means losing their jobs, their freedom, their lives.
And the struggle continues to this day.
We don’t live in a post-racial society. The very idea is absurd, despite so many claims to the contrary. And a post-racial society is not what Dr. King was dreaming of in his famous speech. His dream was a country in which his blackness was no longer a liability, a barrier to access, a reason for him to be mistreated, jailed, beaten, or killed.
Those in charge of the present are also in charge of history, and they bend it however they like, weaving a narrative that suits the needs of the current era. In the here and now, the safe, whitewashed version of Dr. King is celebrated and oft-quoted. He receives his own day on the calendar filled with marches, breakfasts, and sermons in houses of worship.
Memory fades, and carefully curated words move in to fill the gaps.
Unless we decide to never allow ourselves to forget who this man really was. A member of the resistance. A revolutionary. An enemy of the status quo, creating such tension and discomfort that white America had no choice but to act.
And he paid with his life.
Honor Martin Luther King, Jr. by seeing him for what he truly was. And then see this country for what it truly is. A work in progress. A place where racism still runs rampant, though it wears many clever disguises. And accept that the fight for equality is ongoing, the torch passed from Dr. King to activists rallying under the Black Lives Matter banner, to those fighting for criminal justice reform, to those demanding to be seen and heard.
You can stand in the way of progress, or you can join the fight.