Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! Today we observe what would have been Dr. King’s 89th birthday, and reflect upon his legacy.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an activist, philanthropist, orator, and writer, who authored five books (I’m currently reading “Where Do We Go From Here, Chaos or Community”, linked here if you want to purchase). He was the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1963. He led the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, was the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and led the Birmingham Campaign. The list goes on and on, please do yourself a favor and simply Google his achievements. He was a multifaceted and multi-talented man who accomplished far more in 39 years than he is awarded credit.
What’s often overlooked (or purposely buried, if we’re going to be completely honest) is MLK’s later dedication to a more revolutionary line of thinking; One that ruffled feathers, earned him enemies among white liberals, and destroyed his relationship with the Democratic Party, which had been using him to gain the votes of Blacks in the South. This little tidbit is always swept under the rug, in favor of a more ideal and cooperative characterization of King.
However, if we’re going to pay our respects to a Black leader, we should acknowledge his entire catalogue of contributions. As we spend this day honoring Dr. King, let’s go through a little checklist of the things we’re NOT going to do this MLK Day.
1. We’re NOT going to disrespect King’s legacy by allowing others to control his narrative
Today you’re going to see far too many people post quotes and video excerpts from the “I Have A Dream” speech, either because: 1) They are ignorant to how Dr. King evolved and where he stood on topics (and that speech in particular) in his final years, or 2) They are aware, but his evolution makes them uncomfortable so they choose to selectively focus on what they feel is palatable.
Either scenario is unacceptable.
Have you ever wondered why the “I Have A Dream” speech is the only one taught in schools? The one that is constantly referenced during Black History Month? The one that is always thrown in our faces whenever we speak a bit of unpleasant truth about this country’s past and present treatment of Black people and anytime we resist in ways deemed “unacceptable”?
Despite the fact that he authored five books, delivered dozens of speeches and gave hundreds of interviews, for some reason, we continue to hear the same three lines of the same MLK speech over and over again. Most people can’t even name a second King speech. Why?
The strategy is simple: Take a leader, strip him of all ideology that you regard as “controversial” or “radical”, cherrypick a few of his lines that you find agreeable, place him on a pedestal of faux pacificity, then point to him as the Model Black Leader whom all Black people should emulate if they want to see change in this country. “Be like MLK! Have a dream about one day being free. But don’t dream too loudly, too violently, or too visibly. Isn’t that what King would have wanted?”
Spoiler alert: that’s absolutely NOT what he would have wanted. By the time he was killed, he had become a more radical version of himself that would have been unrecognizable to his former 1963 self.
The meek, pacifist, and conflict-avoidant caricature of MLK that was conjured up by the media after his death never actually existed (even in his most moderate years), and to allow this narrative to continue is a complete slap in the face of his legacy. Let’s be clear about something: MLK was a man who believed in dismantling America’s oppressive system by economic withdrawal, radical reformation and undermining capitalism.
2. We’re NOT going to disregard his evolution
While there are some who seek to manipulate his legacy to advance their own agendas, it’s important for us to remember that as Dr. King matured and gained more experiences, his opinions changed. It’s unfair to confine him to the boundaries of a speech he delivered nearly five years before his assassination.
By the time he was murdered in 1968, he had sharply pivoted on many of the stances he’d taken very early in his career, and said that his old optimism had been replaced with “solid realism”. In a more specific reference to the “I Have A Dream” speech, he stated that “his dream had become a nightmare.” In fact, in 1968, during his last conversation with Harry Belafonte, he expressed trepidation about achieving his decades-long goal of integration:
“I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.
I fear, I am leading my people into a burning house.”
He had become increasingly concerned that integration was not going to be successful because white people simply did not wish to live, send their kids to school, or share their wealth and access to resources with Black people. He was and still is correct, as America’s schools are now more segregated than they were 40 years ago and our neighborhoods are still extremely segregated as well (check out this clip from “Adam Ruins Everything” as he discusses the factors that contribute to America’s de facto segregation).
3. We will NOT forget that he shined a light on liberal whites’ willful complicity in racism
One thing that remained consistent throughout his lengthy civil rights career was his focus on the role supposedly “liberal” white people played in the reinforcement of white supremacist structures in America. Dr. King believed that the most powerful opposition to the fight for equity was not the extremists or white nationalists, but the “white moderate” that would rather take issue with the means by which the oppressed seek justice than to question the system that oppresses them in the first place:
“First, 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 (Letter from Birmingham Jail).”
*cough cough* Everybody mad at Colin Kaepernick *cough cough*
Dr. King also believed that most white Americans were willfully ignorant, and were in no way sincerely invested in the effort for racial equality, as evidenced by their tendency to lash out whenever Black people made efforts or progress in the fight for equity:
“Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?
The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.
Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans…These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash. (Excerpt from ‘Where Do We Go From Here, Community or Chaos?’)”
4. We will NOT forget that white America hated MLK while he was alive
It’s nothing short of astonishing that this part of King’s history is being completely erased. White Americans, for the most part, could not stand Martin Luther King Jr. I mean absolutely detested him. So the fact that he’s now this revered symbol of peace and unity is actually a bit comical…because when he was alive he was constantly accused of inciting hatred and violence. When King visited Birmingham, Alabama to peacefully protest employment/wage/housing discrimination, a few white clergymen got together to write a letter condemning him for disrupting their “law and order”:
“Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions,” we also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham…
We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”
And, since y’all love to romanticize the March on Washington, which ended with your beloved “I Have A Dream” speech, let’s talk about that day, shall we? Despite the fact that the march was peaceful, US attorney general Robert Kennedy basically prepared for war. Troops were deployed, surveillance was increased, and jails were cleared in preparation for new arrests. Washington D.C. had prepared itself to wage a war against American citizens. Then-head of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division, William Sullivan, wrote of the “Dream” speech:
“Personally, I believe in the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands heads and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”
Then, let us not forget that the FBI subsequently wiretapped his home and office, harassed him, tried to discredit him, etc. At one point the president of the United States even tried to blackmail him into committing suicide. I’m serious, this actually happened. Google it if you don’t believe me.
Fun fact: In 1966, Gallup surveyed white Americans to determine their overall opinion of MLK. A whopping 63% viewed him negatively, while only 33% viewed him positively.
**Super side note here, in a similar MLK survey from 1964, respondents believed by a nearly 4 to 1 margin that “Negroes should stop their demonstrations now that they’ve made their point even though some of their demands have not been met” EL OH EL. Honestly if you replaced “Negroes” with “Blacks” and told me this was from a 2018 survey, I would 100% believe you.**
In any case, immediately following his death, American media began to deify him. His body hadn’t even become cold before the they began to convert him into a complacent saint.
5. We’re NOT going to overlook the fact that MLK’s words are applicable to present-day issues
A friend and I were chatting about the current state of Black America, and I told him that I don’t know which is more sad: The fact that the condition of the Black people in this nation has not improved at all in the last 50 years, or that we’ve convinced ourselves that is has *cue the shouts of “BUT NIC, WE HAD A BLACK PRESIDENT!”* Yup. You sure did. And what do you have to show for it?
Exactly. Miss me with that. Moving right along…
Collectively, not only have our conditions failed to improve, but Black people are actually worse off today than they were in 1968, the year of King’s murder. According the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, while the poverty rates among white people has declined by a little over one percent since 1968 (from 10% of those under the poverty line being white to 8.8 percent in 2016), it has EXPLODED for people of color, from 33.5% to 51.5% over the same period of time. According to PBS, today’s racial wealth gap is wider than it was in the 1960s. According to study by Gregory Sharp (sociologist at Rice University) and Matthew Hall (sociologist at Cornell University), Black people are at more of a disadvantage in accessing homeownership now than in the 1970s. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Pew Research, Black unemployment rates have consistently been twice that of whites since 1954 (the first year the BLS began tracking unemployment rates). And according to the Business Insider, the income gap between the two groups has gotten wider since the 1960s as well. I could keep going, but you get the gist. We’re currently dealing with the exact same issues we experienced during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Dr. King argued that the path to freedom for Black people was through the economic development. In his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” (linked here, and if you haven’t listened to it, I strongly recommend doing it today. In my opinion, it’s his best speech), he explains to strikers the power of economic withdrawal, and advised that they pull their money from institutions and businesses that have unfair hiring processes or don’t support the fight for equity. He also called upon them to strengthen Black institutions, and provided the example of only depositing money into Black banks.
Shortly before his death, he organized the Poor People’s Campaign, which requested that the federal government provide a $30 billion anti-poverty package inclusive of a guaranteed annual income, more low-income housing, and a commitment to full employment (it still hasn’t happened to this day). Of this campaign he said:
“We believe the highest patriotism demands ending the [Vietnam] war and the opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty”
Presently, as the United States deepens its involvement in wars in the Middle East, Dr. King’s words are still eerily accurate.
Yikes, this post turned out wayyy longer than I intended. Sorry about that. -___- I’m wrapping it up now, I promise.
Today, as we celebrate MLK and his contributions to civil rights, let’s make sure we’re celebrating him in his entirety, not just the pieces of his story that we feel are politically correct or comfortable for us to embrace. If you want to honor him, take some time to read about who he truly was, instead of who he was caricaturized as after his death. It may make you uncomfortable, and it will certainly challenge the idea you formed of him in elementary school, but above all, it will give you a glimpse of the real legacy that Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to leave behind.
And as a warning, if you come to me today referencing any part of the “I Have A Dream” speech, please be prepared to be swiftly and fiercely cursed out. 🙂
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