Clearly Martin Luther King Jr. was a remarkable human being. Tireless energy for the movement of equality. Unimaginable commitment to the ideal of non-violence. And infinite compassion for those who wished to do himself or his family harm. Though, I’m not here to reminisce about his amazing life, or regale you all with one of his many striking quotes. Rather, I would like to discuss how the MLK many folks know from popular culture is not quite the MLK that fought and died for the soul of his people and his country.
His martyrdom has undermined his message; he has been misunderstood.
MLK constantly challenged the status quo, his message now has been sanitized and over-simplified. Justice for all, particularly the poor and marginalized, has largely been forgotten. In his life, multiple levels of American society—government, military, law enforcement, pop culture—all viewed him as a threat to their very ways of life. Now, MLK is no longer a threat. He is often reduced to an idealistic dreamer, who is remembered for soundbites of justice and Facebook quotables.
But how has this happened? I think it is largely a condition of MLK’s message being co-opted from radical thought into mainstream thinking. But not in the holistic, reflective, and transformative way King would have wanted. Rather, it was by means of misunderstanding, sanitizing, and deradicalizing his words.
His image, words, and spirit has all too often been repackaged and sold back to the public. MacDonald’s had an “I have a Dream'' value meal! Though the most egregious use of his words is when they are used as a cudgel against the people MLK fought and died for.
"We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools."
I cannot tell you how many times I see this quote being mobilized against oppressed people. From Ferguson to the global BLM marches; the media, politicians, even the police were all too ready to shame the oppressed who fought for justice with the words of the marginalized greatest champion.
As I am writing this, I am realizing something about myself. I came to this month’s work on Black History from a jaded POV. I wanted to challenge the tokenism that often gets attached to popular Black civil rights figures. But it is important to talk about these people’s legacies. But we need to engage deeper, to really understand their words.
MLK had a steadfast dedication to his ideals—championing the poor, non-violence, and speaking truth to power—that never faltered. Even after gaining the Civil Rights Act from President Lyndon B. Johnson; King went against all advice to call out the President’s actions in Vietnam wholly evil.
Again, MLK was not well liked in his time. In 1968. one year before his assassination, he had a disapproval rating of nearly 75% among white people, and nearly 50% among Black folks. The man was a revolutionary to the core. And I think it is important for us to remember that, especially now.
Watching the BLM protests this summer, we often see peaceful protests met with police brutality. Which is often minimized by state and media actors. What is often talked about are isolated incidents of damage to public property. When a politician calls for peace and unity in the name of MLK, remember the man’s actual words:
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention....And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard."
- “The Other America,” Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968.
So the next time you hear:
Recall these words from Dr. King,
“... I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. … 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. [...] 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 a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963.
The very fact that this quote came from a request to condemn activist action from a prison speaks to both the nature of state oppression as well as MLK’s dedication and opposition of oppression in any form.
Do not get it twisted. Martin Luther King, Jr. DID NOT suffer any fools. And I hope after reading this, y’all won’t either.