In writing about the ways that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been co-opted, silenced, rewritten, whitewashed and misrepresented there is a certain inherent hypocrisy. All of the voices that have stained Dr. King and his legacy in these ways are White. I am also White. I experience White Privilege 24 hours a day and, regardless of how intentionally I may contemplate my privilege and even make conscious decisions to check it on a regular basis, I am still accepted by White Culture as a member. Throw in the facts that I am an educated heteronormative cisgendered male and I am really left to wonder: what right do I have to speak on Dr. King?
Well, the answer is “not much.” In fact, this blog post very nearly consisted of “I don’t have shit to say about this that hasn’t been said, and how much better, by Dr. King himself and other voices that have cache with this issue that I can in no way claim” followed by links to Dr. King’s and other people’s writings and thoughts. Because, surprising as it may be to some, Dr. King’s words were to his people. African-Americans. People of Color. The oppressed, marginalized, Othered, downtrodden. The tragedy — the crime — lies in the fact that Dr. King’s message has been taken away from these people, usurped without shame or pause by a wealthy ruling class of White males. The very people against whom Dr. King so vehemently railed have slyly co-opted his radical message, crafting a saccharine icon for all Americans to complacently marvel at and revere in their own dull way. They continue to murder his message nearly 40 years after they murdered his body.
Two days ago America observed a Federal holiday honoring Dr. King and his legacy. In towns and cities all across the nation people will attend schools, walk down streets, sit in parks and enter buildings all named in honor of the revolutionary civil rights leader. Children are taught about the nice black preacher who had a dream and wanted everyone to be treated equal. We are all spoonfed the racist lie of colorblindness and the whitewashed rendition of Dr. King’s espousal of nonviolence — so that he is no longer one of the “uppity Negroes” but rather one of “the good ones.”
As powerful sociopolitical rapper MC dälek sardonically posits: “What, now we equals cause we have a King’s holiday?”
Post-racial America, part of the lie and legacy of White Supremacy, teaches us that Dr. King was a meek and peace-loving preacher man whose main goal was to get Whites to stop lynching his people. Dr. King was a radical revolutionary who intended to use nonviolence as a subversive means to assert the humanity of a racial and socioeconomic underclass in America. Dr. King was a man who organized resistance and direct action against the government, loudly and boldly spoke against the government, against militarism, against war, against nationalism, against capitalism, against racism, a man who by the end of his life began to call most Whites “unconscious racists.” Is this a man that White America has reason to memorialize, especially by way of a Federal holiday? Dr. King was no friend to White America.
Professor James Cone, leading advocate of Black liberation theology, sheds light on this quandary thus: “King’s words have been appropriated by the people who rejected him in the 1960s. So by making his birthday a national holiday everybody claims him, even though they opposed him while he was alive. They have frozen King in 1963 with his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. That is the one that can best be manipulated and misinterpreted. King also said, shortly after the Selma march and the riots in Watts, ‘they have turned my dream into a nightmare.’”
Furthermore, in the article “Turning King’s Dream Into a Nightmare,” Chris Hedges writes that “Martin Luther King Day has become a yearly ritual to turn a black radical into a red-white-and-blue icon.”
I have already gone on too long. I will let Dr. King close this brief post with his own words and I will link a number of references and resources which everyone would do much better to read and listen to than reading my insignificant voice here. In fact, you have wasted your 5 minutes reading this if you do not hear Dr. King’s voice.
And as you adsorb, ponder, meditate upon, consume and revere the words of the powerful, revolutionary, radical Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., bear in mind that many of his most radical and revolutionary speeches, the ones from which these quotes are taken, are from the last 2½ years of his life; two years in which he began to speak more boldly and loudly against the evils in our society, to align more closely with the ideology of Malcolm X, to criticize our government and nation. Is it any surprise that he was assassinated? Is it any surprise that the FBI has been implicated in being involved in his death? Is any surprise that this, the true, Dr. King has been written over by those with power and privilege, those with everything to lose if Dr. King’s message is heeded?
You can choose. Choose to heed his message. Choose to honor either the legacy of the radical leader of poor, oppressed People of Color or the false idol created by White America.
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action; for they ask and write me, “So what about Vietnam?” They ask if our nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence I cannot be silent. Been a lot of applauding over the last few years. They applauded our total movement; they’ve applauded me. America and most of its newspapers applauded me in Montgomery. And I stood before thousands of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, we can’t do it this way. They applauded us in the sit-in movement–we non-violently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was saying, Be non-violent toward Bull Connor; when I was saying, Be non-violent toward [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff] Jim Clark. There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, Be non-violent toward Jim Clark, but will curse and damn you when you say, “Be non-violent toward little brown Vietnamese children. —King in the speech “Why I Am Opposed to the Vietnam War,” April 30, 1967
And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be, a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God. —King in the speech “Why I Am Opposed to the Vietnam War,” April 30, 1967
True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart. — The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 27.
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. —King in “Beyond Vietnam,” 1967
more from “Beyond Vietnam”:
•Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
•On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
from “Where Do We Go From Here?” (1967):
•We must stand up and say, “I’m black and I’m beautiful,” and this self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him.
•A host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts among husbands, wives and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on the scale of dollars is eliminated.
•Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.