America celebrates Dr. King three times a year: his federal holiday on the third Monday in January, during Black History Month, and every April 4th. Sadly, these celebrations have displaced the reality of his life. Dr. King died a hated man. The overwhelming majority of white Americans had a poor view of him at the time of his death. His support inside the Black community was just above 50%. In the last years of his life Dr. King found himself on the outside of political and social circles he once was welcomed in.
Fifty years after his assassination, America has convinced three generations that he was the prototype for a social activist. His posthumous elevation from radical agent for social change to mythic figure is as American as apple pie. He went from hated to loved without a period of public reflection. The worst part about America’s love affair with Dr. King is the hypocrisy. Every time an activist engages in civil disobedience they are punished. America has never accepted criticism from marginalized communities.
No one in American history has had their legacy more purposefully distorted than Dr. King. Reactionaries and progressives alike use him to endorse a kind of respectability politics that lengthens the arc the moral universe has to travel before it gets to justice. Dr. King has been refashioned into a pacifist. His positions on physical violence overshadow the economic violence caused by the boycotts he championed. Because he possessed the ability to make people confront their own prejudices and shortcomings without attacking their character, he is viewed differently than some of his contemporaries who did the same thing with harsher language. This isn’t the same as being conciliatory to white feelings.
America will never truly understand King’s dream until we are honest about the legacy of racism in America. We can celebrate the progress he helped usher in, but those celebrations do nothing to confront the ways race continues to affect people of color. Refusing to acknowledge race isn't a cure for racism.
Dr. King isn’t white America’s trophy civil rights activist and he’s not Black America’s principal. His legacy should be protected from all enemies both foreign and domestic. White people should check themselves before attempting to use him to quell social activism they are uncomfortable with and Black people with ulterior motives should check themselves before spreading fairy tales that defang his project of social change.
Here are a few things I think we should be mindful of as we reflect on this day.
- Be cautious around people who celebrate Dr. king while opposing every issue he advocated for. You can’t love Dr. King while hating someone like Colin Kaepernick and retain moral consistency. One of these men lead a protest that was much more violent than the other.
- Don’t sit idly by while people try to reappropriate King’s Dream. It’s impossible to remain silent about police brutality, mass incarceration, and the ways race still affects people of color and be a torch-bearer. Don't let people who have chastised protests movements over the same issues King was murdered for supporting convince you that he is their guy. Anyone who has publicly condemned protests over police brutality wouldn't have supported Dr. King.
- No one owns his legacy. I am very protective of Dr. King’s words, but the fact is he was heavily influenced by the religious and secular figures he read and came in contact with. His ability to weave secular and religious texts into a road map to a more equal future is something to be studied and shared. None of us own this legacy, but we should respect it.