The Exploitation Of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy By White Supremacy
By Ijeoma Oluo
Damning myths have marred the holiday to honor Dr. King.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which means that my kids are home from school, NPR will be filled with grainy recordings of well-known civil rights speeches, Facebook will be populated with quotes of mountaintops and dreams, and Twitter will be filled with messages of peace and love and a smattering of racist taunts from trolls. A few comedians will make some unfunny, tasteless jokes. A conservative politician will say something horrifyingly racist, and the rest will release a simple statement about how King embodied the best us, how he shone the light on the golden pathway to racial harmony that we somehow seem to have stepped off of, so that we now find ourselves lost in a forest of anger and divisiveness.
My children will have already forgotten the annual MLK school assembly, held the Friday before the holiday. They will have forgotten the scary stories about how very bad the racist past of America was. They will have forgotten their momentary outrage at the thought of segregated buses, restaurants, and drinking fountains. They will have forgotten their sense of relief that, thanks to Dr. King, those dark times are over now. They will deposit the lingering whispers of MLK’s dream and images of him walking, arms linked with people black and white toward a colorblind future, into the same vault that holds the identical images from years past. Then they will rush to their Xbox consoles.
The Martin Luther King Jr. that we celebrate every year is no longer a man or a movement.
The Martin Luther King Jr. that we celebrate every year is no longer a man or a movement. The annual holiday is no longer a remembrance. Like the creation of the Christmas holiday to pacify, assimilate, and eventually control pagan populations by twisting their sacred truths into brightly colored lies, the narrative of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (along with the oversimplified, whitewashed chapters of civil rights history only opened in schools during this week and the month of February) works to distract and weaken black Americans while strengthening white supremacy.
Here are some of the most damning myths that have marred the holiday.
Martin Luther King Jr. as the leader of the civil rights movement
Dr. King was certainly a leader in the civil rights movement, but to call him the leader of the civil rights movement is not only highly disrespectful of the countless others who inspired and led in the fight for racial equality, it is a misrepresentation of both the civil rights movement and King himself. As a leader in the movement, King himself was not just one man. Advised, inspired, and influenced by a sizeable group of other leaders in the black and activist communities (such as Stanley Levinson, Bayard Rustin, and Clarence B. Jones), much of the King we see standing at podiums was the result of countless hours of discussion, debate, and compromise by King’s inner circle.
The economic and social privilege that allowed King to become a highly educated preacher and leader had been fought for by generations before him.
In addition, the civil rights movement was not just one movement (just as the social justice movement of today is not); it was a collection of different groups and different leaders fighting for different visions of social and economic justice. From the first slave ship bringing black people to this country against their will, there have been people fighting for freedom. The economic and social privilege that allowed King to become a highly educated preacher and leader had been fought for by generations before him. While King was afforded the lion’s share of publicity due to the carefully crafted palatability of his message, activists like Stokely Carmichael, Ida B. Wells, and Malcolm X were also fighting every day to improve the lives of black people in America.
The narrative that King was THE leader of the civil rights movement works to undermine the legitimacy of other methods of seeking racial justice that were also being utilized in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Holding up King’s commitment to love and nonviolence as the primary factor in ending Jim Crow-era segregation places the responsibility for ending racial injustice on the methods of the oppressed, instead of the actions of the oppressor.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s goal of a colorblind society
The distortion of King’s “Dream” speech into a message of a race-free society is one of the most powerful tools of white supremacy in derailing productive discussion on racial justice. Dr. King was very aware of race and his blackness. In no way did King indicate that he saw race or the recognition of blackness and whiteness as a problem in society; his issue was with the ways in which race had been exploited to create social and economic oppression. In the same speech where King dreamed of being judged by the content of his character, he also noted the ways in which black people specifically had been harmed by America:
“But one hundred years later [after the Emancipation Proclamation] the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; one hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
In King’s final book Where Do We Go From Here, he continued to name white supremacy as the cause of oppression, not the existence of race itself, and recognized that the plight of black people needed to be addressed:
“White Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change of the status quo.”
The need to address the specific needs of the black community was also addressed in King’s speech on Black Power:
“Negroes have to acquire a share of power so that they can act in their own interests as an independent social force.”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s goal was peace and harmony
The myth of warm and fuzzy peace and love as MLK’s driving force and ultimate goal for society is commonly used by those who wish to condemn more radical activists by comparison. While King did abhor violence, and deliberately used non-violent protest as a primary tactic, his goal was economic and social justice. Non-violence as a tactic ceded to King the moral authority needed to legitimize his efforts to the white people he viewed as necessary allies, but it was his focus on economic revolution that made him a threat, and brought him the greatest success.
People forget that it was not the peaceful nature of the Montgomery bus boycott that brought an end to busing segregation, it was the financial crippling of its industry brought by the discontinued patronage of blacks that brought it to its knees. King made direct pleas to labor unions to join his cause, arguing that he had the moral authority that the unions needed, and they had the wages that black Americans needed. Today, King’s methods would make him a direct threat to the Koch brothers, Wal-Mart, and just about every Republican politician in office.
Martin Luther King Jr. as the antithesis of Malcolm X and the Black Power movement
In textbooks, film, and television, King is often portrayed as the angel to Malcolm’s devil. The man who believed in peace and love versus the man who promoted anger and violence. King was the man who met racism with tolerance, while Malcolm met racism with reverse-racism. Not only is this a deliberate denial of the smart, nuanced, and ever-evolving activism of Malcolm X, it is a misrepresentation of King intended to gaslight the entirety of black America into believing that their anger is unjustified and counterproductive.
King championed integration and racial cooperation, not only because he felt strong love for people of many races and solidarity with the poor of all races, but primarily because he felt it was the most sure path to improving the lives of black people. But King’s resolute commitment to nonviolence is not the same as a commitment to peace and tranquility, and it in no way means that King did not recognize and share the anger that many blacks had at a society that continued to brutally oppress them. As the Black Power movement rose, King was dismayed not at the concept of Black Power, but at the harm that the violent connotations of Black Power would do to the legitimacy of the civil rights movement in the eyes of white stakeholders. In discussing the Black Power movement, King stresses:
“The new mood has arisen from real, not imaginary causes. The mood expresses an angry frustration which is not limited to the few who use it to justify violence. Millions of Negroes are frustrated and angered because extravagant promises made less than a year ago are a shattered mockery today.”
King also warned that the exploitation of the non-violent civil rights movement by white supremacy in order to maintain oppression of black people would, itself, lead to violence:
“If they continue to use our nonviolence as a cushion for complacency, the wrath of those suffering a long train of abuses will rise.”
While King did not agree with many of Malcolm X’s methods, he deeply admired Malcolm’s intelligence on the root causes of racial oppression and his commitment to black people and was by all accounts deeply impacted by Malcolm’s assassination. Both Martin and Malcolm were committed to black love and black pride (King even took to wearing a “Black is Beautiful” lapel pin the year before his death). Like Malcolm, King was opposed to the Vietnam War. After Malcolm X’s assassination, King wrote to Malcolm’s widow Betty Shabazz:
“I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and the root of the problem.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was many things — a radical, a moderate, a peacekeeper, a hellraiser, a father, a husband, a crusader against the evils of capitalism, a proponent of love and also revolution. He was a man known to be deeply sensitive, sometimes misogynist, often depressed, blisteringly funny. He was all of these things and more. And like so many brothers and sisters before and since, his beautiful and rich mahogany tones have been flattened to the matte black of the history books that paint him as the friend of well-meaning whites and the moral opposition of angry blacks. And like King, we as black people are so much more than white supremacy would have us believe.
Let King’s legacy be that we were loved by him.
Let King’s legacy be that we were loved by him. We were loved for our beauty, our strength, our resilience, our creativity, and yes — even our anger. King’s love for us brought a privileged, middle-class preacher to dedicate his life to political and economic revolution, for social upheaval. It was a love that he was willing to lose his life for. And it was a love that we did not have to earn; it was a love we were bestowed simply because we are. And we continue to be loved today.
If we can honor King’s memory, let’s do it by refusing to let the powers that be posthumously place pre-qualifiers of respectability on King’s love for us, and by refusing to let them ascribe a passivity and complacency to King that he never had in life.