No, Really. White People, Watch More Movies About Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
By Piper Werle
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most quotable people in history. In the documentary King in the Wilderness, Harry Belafonte shares how he would pull notes from the trash that King, his friend, and confidante, would discard while writing speeches at Belafonte’s home. He did this because even King’s trash would undoubtedly contain profound statements.
Agonizingly, taking MLK quotes out of context is common practice, and has been for decades. If you spend time watching the news or on social media, you’ve seen this. Whether it’s a politician attempting to improve their own statement by co-opting some of King’s powerful words, or someone trying to “win” in a comment section, it’s clear that too many people, namely white folks, feel an unjustified comfort speaking on behalf of the Civil Rights icon, or appropriating out-of-context quotes to serve personal agendas.
Take Mike Pence, for example. In 2019, while praising Donald Trump’s efforts to get funding to build the border wall, Pence said, “One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was, ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.’ You think of how he changed America, he inspired us to change through the legislative process.”
Pence’s use of this quote is bizarre and problematic. For one thing, that quote is taken from MLK’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech during the epochal March on Washington in 1963. The paragraph that Pence cherry-picked this sentence from is about rights that have been denied to Black people. MLK is calling for “the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — as laid forth by our nation’s founding documents — to be fulfilled for Black people as well as white people. Those are “the promises of democracy” he is referring to in the context of his speech. The context surrounding Mike Pence’s point is a push to build a border wall that, no matter one’s political stance, could not be farther from a symbol of racial equality.
Pence also seems to suggest that MLK’s central tactic for inspiring change was through legislative processes. While victories of the Civil Rights movement and MLK’s leadership include the passing of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), it is only to the detriment of the continued movement for racial justice to disregard that the fundamental way of life MLK preached was nonviolent resistance and the use of direct action. As mentioned in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, one cultural shift achieved by Civil Rights activists was making being arrested for resisting injustice a noble act. Meanwhile, Mike Pence famously walked out of a football game after athletes knelt during the national anthem to peacefully protest police brutality.
You may recall an abundance of out-of-context MLK quotes during the uprising this past summer, including when some people felt comfortable telling the Reverend’s own son that his father would condemn the Black Lives Matter movement. Anand Giridharadas aptly names this “King-splaining” in this excellent video.
King in the Wilderness also shows multiple riots that took place during King’s life and how King responds. For example, it shows him speaking at a Senate hearing on December 15, 1966, where he says: “And I think it is very necessary to say that as we condemn violence, and I will continue to work against violence and riots with all my might, that it is just as important to work passionately and unrelentingly to get rid of the conditions that bring violence into being.”
A reality that is being brought to light more and more, especially in the new documentary MLK/FBI, is that MLK was widely viewed by many in the federal government as a threat. For me, when any current politician uses an MLK quote I ask myself, how might they treat the Reverend if he was doing his work now? And, how is this person treating people, especially Black and brown people, fighting for racial justice now?
I’m no authority on the Civil Rights movement, or the viewpoints of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My point is that the more I look to the many, many resources available that share MLK’s words, philosophies, and life, the more obvious it is that history is repeating itself. And perhaps you, like me, were overwhelmed last summer with lists of movies to watch and could use a reminder that educating oneself is an ongoing, lifelong process. Documentaries and narrative films about MLK and other activists have not only been moving and educational for me, but inspirations to find ways to plug into community organizing efforts.
What I’m holding myself to account for is never just sharing or absorbing an MLK quote again without researching the situation in which it was said, and films are one way I can do that. There are many MLK movies and miniseries (and filmmakers, there are still more that could be made).
Nuance and a great deal of context have been largely absent in current criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement. If those critics—many who identify as Liberal — took more time to listen to Black activists, living and dead, with open minds and with time to reflect and process, they may feel differently.
Especially taking into account the Reverend’s criticism of the white moderate.
Articles listing movies about MLK, the Civil Rights Movement, and struggles for justice:
Follow Piper Werle on Twitter @piperDubz.
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