Editor’s note: I have in fact, successfully relocated from my apartment in downtown Toronto to a new (rented) house outside the city proper; indeed, I’ve completed roughly 65% of my unpacking and my back is finally starting to loosen up from what has been a physically arduous move. Although there are still many constraints on my time at the moment, they’re all working toward a peaceful conclusion and it is therefore safe for me to get back to writing a little bit – with any luck, full service will be restored in the next week or so, but today’s post really couldn’t wait any longer.
“The time is always right, to do what is right” – Martin Luther King Jr.
In the interests of full disclosure, I would like to begin by stating that I am in fact white and that this article is primarily intended for white readers of ninaillingworth.com; today we’re going to be talking about the active misrepresentation of an American hero for the purposes of maintaining white supremacy in a society that purportedly reveres him, and how selective quotation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr by the establishment is used to suppress black activism. This is unlikely to be news for African American readers of this website and I have no desire to engage in the very act I am decrying – lecturing black Americans on the life of Dr. King as it pertains to the struggle for racial equality.
With that out of the way, I would like to note that today is Martin Luther King Jr day throughout the United States and although you may not know it you have already, undoubtedly been exposed to literally hundreds of lies and misrepresentations about Dr. King and his life from establishment forces on this fine Monday afternoon. This morning, I myself have already seen a teeming goddamn multitude of blatantly offensive “tributes” to MLK by organizations, corporations and government entities whose very purpose for existing stands in direct opposition to all that Dr. King stood for – from the hyper-capitalist National Football League, to the openly racist American Republican Party and even the notoriously abusive IDF in Israel; hell, even the FBI (an organization that literally tried to convince Dr. King to kill himself) threw it’s hat in the ring with a sickeningly bland, notably tone deaf “tribute” tweet while I was watching.
Although I do indeed find the crass, hypocritical commercialization of Dr King’s memory by the very forces which would oppose him if he were still alive today to be repugnant, I find myself far more disheartened and angered by the disingenuous, even violent twisting of the man’s message into a weapon against the very types of activism he believed in. After years of observing this wholly wrongheaded process in action, I have come to believe that most white Americans know almost nothing about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and instead have fashioned a subconscious, cartoonish caricature of this great man based on collective (and selective) societal memory. For most of us, Dr. King has become a collection of quotes about peaceful co-existence, images from a Civil Rights march in Alabama and audio files of a famous speech about having a dream. He is a figure of unending patience, Jesus-like tolerance and an inexhaustible river of forgiveness for the horrific crime of African American slavery and inequality in our nation’s dark, not-so-distant past. In this fantasy Dr. King is the black Mahatma Ghandi, the Baptist version of William Penn and the Christian polar-opposite of his radical, Muslim contemporary, Malcolm X. We’re taught in school that MLK was a soft spoken, kindly southern preacher; a pacifist who believed only in non-violent protest and whose only desire was to join white and black Americans together in a giant, establishment-sponsored kumbaya circle – thus ending racism as something we still have to care about and fight against.
As any student of history will tell you however, this falsified, commercialized and wholly sanitized image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr is at best a gross misrepresentation of his ideas and at it’s worst; an objectively racist historical revision of everything Dr. King believed in and stood for. Martin Luther King was a fearless, determined activist against all forms of injustice and inequality; in addition to fighting for voting rights, racial equality and the Civil Rights Act, Dr. King was also a tireless opponent of poverty, the economic inequity of capitalism and the relentless American war machine. King didn’t just wander around the country giving hopeful speeches; time and time again he sacrificed his own safety to lay his body and blood on the line during marches, protests and in other forms of direct action. For his troubles, MLK was shamelessly smeared by American media, his house was bombed by segregationists and no less an authority than the original head of the FBI referred to him as “the most dangerous” black man in America. Although many white Americans are quick to point out Dr. King’s dedication to non-violent resistance; the operative word in King’s life was resistance – in the ten year period between 1955 and 1965; King was arrested a staggering twenty-nine times for the “crime” of demanding justice and equality for all Americans.
This of course begs the simple question of why? Why do white Americans repeatedly quote from only one speech, from only one of Dr. King’s many attempts to achieve true equality in this country? Why are the words of a man who fought tirelessly for African American rights so often quoted out of context to argue against the very types of protests, marches and direct action maneuvers King spent his entire life promoting? Why does white America portray King in opposition to black resistance movements when he was openly supportive of Black Pride, reparations and Black Power activists like Stokely Carmichael? Why would Republicans attempt to claim MLK as one of their own when he was clearly an ardent democratic socialist? Why don’t establishment figures ever mention that towards the end of his life Martin Luther King began to openly question the value of peaceful integration into a still, notably racist American society? Why won’t you hear about King’s anti-war and anti-poverty activism or his truly revolutionary “Poor People’s Campaign” tonight on the evening news? Why won’t you hear that at the time of his death, King was actively working to create a coalition between the African American Civil Rights movement, union leaders and poor, disenfranchised white Americans to address and attack economic inequity in the United States? Finally, why doesn’t anyone using the memory of Dr. King to shame those speaking out against inequality, ever remember that despite his steadfast dedication to non-violence, King was assassinated (under mysterious circumstances) by a deranged white racist for the mere crime of speaking about equality?
In studying this drastic, almost farcical disconnect between the historical Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the grotesque, conveniently oversimplified homunculus that various elements of the US establishment trot out each January, I am left with only one obvious conclusion – the United States of America remains a profoundly racist nation that would rather fictionalize and de-radicalize the memory of a national hero than address justifiable black rage and staggering economic disparity directly. Thus, the life and message of one of America’s truly great, radical activists must be reduced to a few well-worn bromides from a single speech and absolutely never examined outside of the false idea of a colorblind society that King himself merely saw as a means of achieving real equality in a country that professes to already provide such to it’s citizens. After all, if anyone ever realized that a guy with a national holiday named after him thought capitalism was the primary source of injustice and inequity in America and that racism itself was part of a social order designed to protect capitalism; well, then the Incorporated States of Amerikkka might have a serious goddamn problem on it’s hands.
In conclusion, as this Martin Luther King day draws to a close, I ask you to indeed remember the real, radical Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and not just selected portions of the I Have a Dream speech spoon fed to you by wealthy white people who’d sincerely rather you discuss neither race, nor class on a day set aside to celebrate a man who fought and died for justice on both fronts. If you read only one thing written by Dr. King today, let it not be carefully curated quotations about unity, but instead let it be the full* transcript of King’s 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in which a a clearly determined, but disappointed MLK confesses that:
“over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Stay strong and keep ’em honest my friends.
- Nina Illingworth
*PS – on the off chance you think I’m exaggerating about the lengths to which white society will go to alter, minimize and twist Dr. King’s message, check out which portions of King’s 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” one mainstream, “respectable” publication chose to leave out at the time – hint, you won’t find any mention of “the white moderate” in the establishment-curated narrative.
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