When They Told Me to Act More Like Martin Luther King

“I just don’t see why you’ve become so aggressive towards me recently. I’m all for you being political but just not towards me. I think you should be more like Gandhi, or, or… or Martin Luther King.”

It is now 3:30 in the morning, and I haven’t fallen asleep yet. My iPhone battery has gone well into the red zone but there is no one to help me plug it in. My friend’s words keep replaying in my head cementing a feeling of utter failure and despondency into my mind.

Athena Stevens is a Spokesperson for the Women’s Equality Party. (photo: Christian Banfield)

I’m not a peace maker.

I’m not an agent for good in this world.

I am aggressive, which is not much better than the people I myself am trying to change.

I should be more like Martin Luther King.

Thinking about the man whose face I coloured in every January growing up, I can’t help but wonder if we somehow haven’t managed to domesticate a great man’s legacy.

We ourselves all like to believe that we will end up on the ‘right side’ of history. We aren’t racist, we are progressive. Rosa Parks, King, even Fredrick Douglas would all be welcome at our table. They aren’t like these sticky social justice warriors that are out there now. King had class. I would welcome him with open arms.

Thank God we live in a post King world. I would have stood by him boldly back in the day.

Except, that’s not how social change works. Not really. We are doing King a huge disservice if we only see him as a peacemaker, a man who didn’t also cause conflict and discomfort in the middle of his campaign.

If we think people weren’t hurt by King’s actions at the time, we are missing the biggest agony in the quest for equality.

People, every single one of us, do not like confrontation. For King and his movement to have any kind of success, people had to be confronted.

King didn’t end up in Birmingham Jail because he was a ‘peacemaker’ or even because he had new ideas. Most people found King to be an aggressive troublemaker right up until the day he died. King lost relationships. People who he assumed would be there clapped back and hurt him as a result. If we see this man as someone who never pissed people off and always made people feel at peace we are missing King’s legacy and the emotional cost of his pursuit.

It’s almost always easier to call someone ‘aggressive’ than to listen to the truth of what is being said. Once someone is aggressive, or, to put it another way, has ‘gone nuclear’ we don’t have to listen to them. They don’t have a good point, they are just angry. We don’t have to listen to angry people, they should just manage their emotions better.

This is, at base level, self deception that lies at the core of their systematic injustice. The lies we tell ourselves, the words we use in an attempt to reframe what really happened are the greatest tools in clutching and restraining power.

It is never for the privileged to tell the oppressed how to fight the injustice they are facing. In revisiting Martin Luther King again over recent months I have been reminded over and over that this is a man who felt pain deeply, just as the severances of relationships I once thought strong pains me to my core. King was a man who struggled with depression, who attempted to take his own life after he lost someone he loved, and who would give just about anything to see the just world he knew human’s were capable of, even when it meant being labelled as aggressive in the process.

In many ways, this women was right. I do aspire to be like King. That means having fitful nights after contentious conversations, a cost which doubtless King bore but we never speak of. It means confronting people, knowing that you are doing your best to make it as loving as possible, but also expecting people to call you aggressive no matter how careful you are. And it means becoming acquainted with a suffering most of us choose to avoid, where we yearn for a better world but know that each of us must painfully look at our own actions and hypocrisy to make it happen.

So sure, I will do my best to emulate Martin Luther King. Something tells me, however, that my friend won’t like it very much.