Unfortunately, Dr. King’s legacy has been clouded by efforts to soften, sanitize, and commercialize it. Impulses to remove Dr. King from the complex and radical movement that elevated him must end. We resist efforts to reduce a long history marred with the blood of countless people into iconic images of men in suits behind pulpits.
There was a time when I believed what I was taught in school about Martin Luther King. I believed that he was a man who encouraged only peaceful means of protest. I believed he would blame black people for their own oppression. I believed he would say that racism was only a problem because we all kept talking about it. I believed that because that’s what I was told about the man as a child, but I am learning that a lot was left out of black history in school. I am learning that it was all either white-washed or pure lies.
It didn’t occur to me at the time that we never discussed any other civil rights leaders, and it did not occur to me that we only discussed one of Dr. Kings speeches. It never occurred to me that the teachers implied that “The Dream” had already been achieved and that any further anger or dwelling on past wrongs (which were also not discussed beyond “there was slavery but then there wasn’t and it’s been happily ever after ever since”) was to disappoint the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and we must always strive to make his dream of peace and color-blindness a reality.
As a teenager, I noticed the difference in tone when discussing Dr. King vs. discussing other civil rights activists, like Malcolm X. I was drawn to learn more about the ones that white people didn’t like and didn’t give a holiday to. I bought into what I was taught and chose not to hold Dr. King up as a hero because in my mind he had been a pawn of white supremacy.
I realize now I was wrong. I learned that after his death his message had been remade and repackaged as a means to hush and patronize black people. I saw it in school and I saw again on social media, first when Trayvon Martin was killed, then again when Mike Brown was killed. I have seen it time and time again from reporters, politicians, bloggers, and racists, to guilt POC into turning a blind eye to injustices that continue to exist just below the surface of public awareness.
“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
// Martin Luther King, Jr.
When the Ferguson protests happened it seemed that white people were only mad about black people protesting (and possibly rioting) but no about the issues that sparked the protests in the first place. What was painfully obvious was that if it were white people perceiving an injustice (real or not) there would be no action that was too much or too far. Isn’t America all about Give Me Freedom or Give Me Death?
Yeah, they are if you are white. If you aren’t you should remember that Dr. Martin Luther King would not have stood for this. Dr. King would not say “Black Lives Matter”, he would say “All Lives Matter”. The man is probably spinning in his grave as we speak because you people are rioting and hating whites when you ought to be holding hands and singing Kum-ba-ya. You ought to be moving on from the past. You ought to be forgetting racism was ever a thing and thinking about how you can change things by being a better person and pulling up your pants. Remember Dr. King’s Dream.
“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being…I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.
// Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr.
No, I think Dr. King would be celebrating what happened in Ferguson. He would praise all the efforts since then as well. He would praise the men and women standing up now and fighting, however they can, for a better world. A world where police aim to bring people to justice rather than enforce their own brand of justice themselves. A world where black people feel beautiful and capable. A world where our history has not been forgotten or altered. A world where every black child grows up knowing where he came from and why they must keep fighting every day.
I do think Dr. King would have a few issues with how things are turning out. He would be appalled at the number of deaths of young black people at the hands of law enforcement. I think he would be appalled at the number of black people still living in poverty. I think he would be appalled at how little the attitudes and attentions of white people have changed.
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.
// Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr.
I think it’s time for a change in the way we talk about Martin Luther King. Go out and try to learn something new about this man today. Read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, read his letter Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam, read his interview with Alex Haley, listen to a few of his other speeches, and check out the hashtag #ReclaimMLK. Start there and you will see the man you thought Dr. King was was a fabrication and a tool used to keep us all blind.
He was not a man who only cared for nonviolent protest. He was not a man who valued order over justice. He was not a man who wanted black people to move on and forget the past. Hell, he gave more than one damn speech. He fought against economic injustice. He believed in reproductive rights. He risked his life every day to say we have to speak up and we have to fight. He was hated by the same kinds of people who twist his legacy today. Don’t forget, he was no national hero in his time.
That is the man I choose to celebrate today. The man named “the most dangerous negro” and an enemy of the state. The man that was killed for speaking up. The man who would not allow America to quietly forget her sins.