As Congresswoman Maxine Waters inspiringly calls on us to #ReclaimOurTime, we must reclaim our hero Martin Luther King, Jr.—his life, work, and legacy. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a complicated man on an insatiable quest for justice, righteousness, and the pursuit of peace. Deservingly so, many media pundits, politicians, and public intellectuals alike find themselves living in his radiant light and quoting some of his awe-inspiring prose. While King deserves every button, refrigerator magnet, greeting card, and Twitter banner made in his honor, he also deserves a fair and honest portrayal of his radical activism. This January 15th, as the nation celebrates King’s diligent work in bending our moral arc towards justice, it is imperative that we all think of King’s legacy and interrogate how it is represented to the public.
At the top of the year, The New York Times Columnist David Brooks invoked King’s famous ‘dream’ in a call to move American society past a tribalist, enemy-driven community. He writes, “From an identity politics that emphasized our common humanity, we’ve gone to an identity politics that emphasizes having a common enemy.” Packaging King into a narrow, convenient narrative, Brooks continues, “Martin Luther King described segregation and injustice as forces tearing us apart. He appealed to universal principles and our common humanity as ways to heal prejudice and unite the nation. He appealed to common religious principles, the creed of our founding fathers and a common language of love to drive out prejudice.”
Such a warm, engaging characterization of King’s ethos sounds great. It’s fluffy and it’s kind. But it is also deceptively incomplete. Yes, King called upon us to see beyond race, creed, and nationality. He certainly called on everyone to see the common humanity in each other. For some, it’s easy to only see this part of King—the excellent orator with an ability to appeal to our shared pathos like no other. This selective interpretation—what one of my high school teachers referred to as “the Santa Clause effect”—is as ahistorical as it is morally abhorrent. King was a radical by all accounts. He loved radically. He campaigned radically. He fought radically. While he appealed to our common humanity, he also appealed to a very specific, uncommon set of politics. Politics that centered the vulnerable shaped his being. To characterize himself as anything less than radical is to piecemeal him into a self-serving narrative.
Politicians who voted for the recent tax overhaul will likely Tweet out something regarding King as an “American hero” this MLK day. What would such a hero say about legislation that strips millions of people of adequate access to healthcare? Of social safety nets? That widens the already shameful gap between the rich and poor? King had much to say on economic inequality, spending the latest parts of his life waging a campaign to eradicate it. In March 1968, inside the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., King proclaimed, “Not only do we see poverty abroad, I would remind you that in our own nation there are about forty million people who are poverty-stricken… I have just been in the process of touring many areas of our country and I must confess that in some situations I have literally found myself crying…” Appealing on behalf of some of the most vulnerable, King continued, saying, “This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” King’s activism did not stop at visionary platitudes; it was rooted in non-violent and sustained action challenging policy and morality.
Those who find the president’s rhetoric repulsive, particularly his recent comments referring to black and brown nations, will also find that King viewed such bigoted and inhumane international relations equally as evil. The recklessness and indisputable racism of our current administration does not mark the first time America has treated other nations as “shitholes,” even if it is the first time our leaders have so disgustingly used that word. King’s preaching on the Vietnam War emphasize that. In a campaign against the Vietnam war, King passionately exclaimed, “The judgment of God is upon us today. And we could go right down the line and see that something must be done—and something must be done quickly. We have alienated ourselves from other nations so we end up morally and politically isolated in the world.” Once again, America has found herself alienated against many parts of the world. The African Union, representing all 55 African nations, just requested an apology from the president after expressing disgust with his “shithole” remarks. Can citizens who actively support a morally bankrupt president still honestly revel in King’s legacy?
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People of good will across the nation will likely post something online Monday regarding King’s vivid ‘dream.’ It would help to remember that in that same speech, King said, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” So, before reducing King’s speech for Jobs and Freedom to little black and white girls singing “Kumbaya,” the public must collectively examine why there are such disparities between white and black engagement with police forces. We must explore why some young black women are brought to their death after being nearly forced into activism. Never forget, King once called America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” America was not kind to Martin Luther King, Jr., nor is it kind to black folks today. When he spoke up for a better world, when he called races to walk head in hand, he was punished for it. The FBI and Director J. Edgar Hoover began monitoring King in 1955, at one point calling him “the most notorious liar in the country.” In 2017, that same organization labeled a new generation of activists “Black Identity Extremists,” exposing a malicious history towards civil rights leaders in a contemporary manifestation. America can’t pretend to look back at King’s treatment by the FBI with disgust while simultaneously ignoring their targeting of black leaders today.
To understand King’s legacy as one that centers the humanity of black people, people abroad, poor people, and others is not an exercise in tribalism. Enlighteningly, it helps us understand that the type of active mobilization of historically marginalized people engage in is rooted in systemic violence. Such work is a cry to the moral senses of the good. King said himself that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
What’s left to do? As a public, we can keep Martin Luther King Jr.’s many dream alive, continuing to negotiate and understand the full and complicated history he left us with. We can support spiritual leaders, like Rev. William Barber II and others, who are following in King’s footsteps and calling for a moral revival. We can acknowledge and act against anti-black violence in all forms. We can be zealots against poverty and economic inequality. We can have material impacts on policy that would bring King’s ‘dream’ to life—King challenged us to. In reference to white moderates and others hesitant to join in his radical mission, he expressed a potential need to repent “Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around.
Just thinking about the dream is not enough; it’s never been enough. We have the power to bring it to life. We can reclaim his legacy.