This year America is commemorating the life of Martin Luther King Jr. in a chaotic and shameful era of democracy. Less than two weeks ago, insurgents stormed the United States Capitol after being asked by the sitting US President to retake the country, holding on to false claims of electoral fraud.
In moments of social and political turmoil, we often wonder what King would do.
Unfortunately, the same forces that motivated the insurgents have done their best to dilute and whitewash the king’s message and legacy. The ideology of the white supremacists motivated the attack on the Capitol, and it is the same power that in recent years has tried to misrepresent King’s words in order to put them on their agenda.
For example, Vice President Mike Pence compared Donald Trump to King to defend Trump’s border wall. “One of my favorite Dr. King quotes was,” Now is the time to deliver on the promises of democracy, “Pence said on Face the Nation ahead of MLK Day 2019.” You think about how he changed America. He inspired us to change ourselves through the legislative process and become a more perfect union. ‘“
Other Trump administration officials have been doing the same for the past four years.
On MLK Day 2019, then spokeswoman Sarah Sanders tweeted: “Today we honor a great American who gave his life to correct the injustice of racial inequality. Our country is better thanks to his inspiration and his sacrifice. “He didn’t realize that King was murdered at the young age of 39. King did not give his life to white supremacy; white supremacy took it. Nor did Sander’s statement acknowledge how the king’s death sparked unrest across the country and effectively undermined the civil rights movement he helped lead.
Even the National Rifle Association took up the king’s legacy and twisted the circumstances of his death to fit their gun rights agenda. The organization tweeted last year, “King applied for concealed carry in a state that might be issued and was denied. We will never stop fighting for the right of every law abiding citizen to defend himself. “The organization suggested that King might have survived his assassination attempt if he had not been denied the right to carry a gun. They too neglected to mention that he was murdered by a white escaped criminal who had access to firearms despite restrictions.
This year those who try to uphold the hatred and bigotry that King has fought vehemently will surely seek to rewrite King’s history all over again, and after an uprising that sought to overthrow democracy and turn back justice, peace and demand unity. And America has to see it for what it is: an attack that King clearly would have denounced.
“King’s image and tactics are being misused and deliberately misrepresented by those who focus on it as the enemy of democratic ideals and the ideals of equality and fairness in this country,” said Janai Nelson, associate director and advisor, NAACP Legal Defense and education funds, said Vox. “We should remember King that he was in no way a pacifist, shaped, or shaped. He believed in nonviolence. He believed in a tradition of ongoing protests. And he also believed in full truth and transparency about the evils of white supremacy. “
King cannot be defined solely by pacifism or confrontational action
King’s radicalism, his choice to love blacks and fight for their humanity, is evident in his “Letter from a Birmingham Prison” to his fellow clerics who believed his strategies and tactics were extreme. In the letter, he recognized the violence of white supremacy and why urgency was the only option.
“Perhaps for those who have never felt the stabbing arrows of segregation, it is easy to say, ‘Wait’. But when you’ve seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at will; When you’ve seen hateful cops curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters […] then you will understand why it is difficult for us to wait. “
And his recognition of white violence wasn’t limited to extremists. He also noted the violence of white moderates who threatened the struggle for civil liberties. According to King, they were the greatest threat to the rise of blacks.
[…] I have to admit that I have been very disappointed with the white moderator over the past few years. I have almost come to the unfortunate conclusion that the negro’s great stumbling block on his way to freedom is not the white city council or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more committed to “order” than justice ; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, over a positive peace, which is the presence of justice; who keeps saying, “I agree with you in the end you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” those who paternalistically believe that they can set the schedule for another man’s freedom; who lives according to a mythical concept of time and constantly advises the negro to wait for a “more favorable season”.
As if suspecting how politicians would use his name to further their own agendas, King called out moderates whose response to racial tension was not to grapple with what justice would be like, but simply to demand peace . He acknowledged that white moderates had no interest in black people gaining freedoms and that they did not want to join the fight for policies that would make real change.
Nor was the king’s legacy limited to just justice based on the categorization of races. These include his struggle against capitalism (he worked on the Campaign of the Poor in the months prior to his assassination and was in Memphis to support a plumbing strike), the Vietnam War (he condemned the war in a 1967 speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam”) and limited citizenship for the oppressed (King celebrated social democratic governments during his 1964 European tour on the way to accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo).
King said in a letter to his wife in 1952: “I can imagine that you already know that in my economic theory I am much more socialist than capitalist … [Capitalism] started with a noble and lofty motive … but like most human systems it fell victim to the very thing it rebelled against. Capitalism has outlived its usefulness today. “
America has also tried to elevate King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as the key address that defined it, the address where King allegedly advocated seeing character over color. While King actually said that people should be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, he never claimed that the problem was seeing the breed for oneself. In the same address it was clear to him how the construct of the race developed for the black Americans:
“But a hundred years later [after the Emancipation Proclamation] The negro’s life is still sadly crippled by the shackles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. A hundred years later, the negro lives on a desert island of poverty in the middle of a vast ocean of material prosperity. A hundred years later, the Negro is still in the corners of American society, in exile in his own country. “
King would have turned 91 this year, a year in which efforts have already been made to undo the principles he advocated. In a year when insurgents seek to reassert white supremacy, it’s important to see King’s legacy for what it really was: complex. He called for nonviolence but also called for unrest until there was no injustice anywhere.
“We have to honor MLK by honoring him,” author and historian Carol Anderson told Vox. “We honor him by not kidnapping and twisting his words to fit a white supremacist agenda.”
According to Anderson, American leaders often recite how we should be a country that judges people by the content of their characters, but their requests are not real. “We have guidelines that, in fact, don’t care about character, but rather about people’s skin color,” she said. “So until we have a system that recognizes that, don’t use the words of Martin Luther King to move forward or provide a fig leaf to cover the agenda of the white supremacists.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (center) speaks during a press conference in St. Augustine, Florida on June 10, 1964 about the start of a massive attack on segregation. AP
It will take some work to really live up to King’s vision for the world, Anderson said. This includes knowing our true history, whites having real conversations with other whites, and reducing the kind of reflexive reactions America has to white supremacy.
For Nelson, the honor of King’s legacy means calling for accountability for white supremacy.
“To leave January 6th without consequence is to push back and undo the work and sacrifice of Martin Luther King Jr. and those he stood up for. It would be one of the deepest attacks on his legacy, ”Nelson told Vox. “And we will not be idle as this entrenched minority of radical native terrorists and extremists seek to undo this incredibly important work.”
What King would have said at that moment – when he witnessed a president who supported white supremacists and tried to overthrow an election – his words were always with us. In his last book, Where Do We Go From Here, King wrote: “White Americans need to realize that justice for blacks cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, anchored, privileged cannot tremble any further at the prospect of a change in the status quo. “
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