I don’t have to tell you that Martin Luther King Jr. was many things. He was a leader, a teacher, a preacher, and an example to us all of someone who believed in justice. The legacy of King is evident in many sites of American history; his position is solidified as the great, non-violent civil rights leader who is beloved by many Americans, and indeed the world.
King continues to be seen as the conscience of an American citizenry, more than four decades after his death. He is seen as the man whose dream became a reality, all while touching the soul of America in the process of seeking justice and fairness in its treatment of all people.
King is romanticized, but when he becomes romanticized to the point at which his legacy is whitewashed, we need to revisit and rethink our memories of him.
First and foremost, we must remember that King was not universally beloved while he was alive. He was not only challenged by those in Black communities who did not align with his non-violent stance, but he was also largely disliked by many white communities, who saw him as radical. Indeed, it speaks volumes on how deep-seated anti-Blackness is in this country when a man such as King, who was explicitly non-violent, was deemed a radical during his lifetime.
Try as they may to hide it — as so many who use his image for their benefit do — we know that King’s marginalization is historical fact. Any of us can freely view the sorts of letters King received — letters unnervingly similar to some of what is said about the Black Lives Matter movement today, as well as Black people like you and me who bring up race in general conversations. These messages are saturated with empty catchphrases and propaganda to try and discount fact: “What about black on black crime?” “Why are you dividing us (by talking about race)?” “We have done so much for you, why are you hurting people on your side?’
The more things seem to change, the more they stay the same.
Aside from the historical distortion of public response to King when he was alive, there is also the distortion of his message. A recent article in Alternet aptly showcases this by pointing out the MLK Jr. quotes that you will never see in mainstream media.
For example, people love to cite that famous King quote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” But those who buy into the whitewashed version of King are less likely to acknowledge that King also said, “I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”
The former quote is consistent with the traditional ideology attributed to King — that he was some sort of Black, peace-loving hippie who just wanted everybody to kiss and make up. But instead, a close inspection of his words reveals a man who understood and fought against the complex and unjust system that people of color, and especially Black people, face in the United States.
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King was not delusional to the plight of Black Americans, nor was he ignorant of the history he was working against, and the difficulty of the future that lay ahead. We do a great disservice to his legacy by only considering the messages that are easy to misconstrue for the sake of “keeping the peace.”
King and his methods were far more complex than that. Indeed, he was a man who filled hearts with hope with his I Have A Dream speech. But King was also the same man who wrote a heartfelt Letter from Birmingham, in which the frustration of living through injustice is present in his words and tone.
King believed in nonviolence and championed it, but he also understood that, “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
So, please put away your convenient, whitewashed version of Martin Luther King Jr. Reconsider what your mainstream textbooks, documentaries, and stories have told you of his life.
King, like all great people, was a man of many perspectives. His legacy deserves more than just feel-good sayings; it deserves the fire, passion, and inherent complication of what it means to be a Black person fighting tirelessly for equality.
King’s dream has not been reached yet, and until that distant day when it has, our romanticized version of him, and of ourselves in this American experiment, is undue.