America Still Doesn’t Understand Martin Luther King

Florida Memory, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another Martin Luther King day has arrived. On this day, Americans celebrate a well-respected and properly valorized champion of civil rights. At least, that is what it would appear to be, but the truth is much more sinister. While most Americans take their day off and enjoy the chance to sleep in, little is said about the unending whitewashing and de-fanging of a radical icon whose legacy is only presented in an almost mocking infantilization of its power. Far from being honored, Dr. King’s legacy remains woefully represented both in American history and character. So long as Americans remain unaware of the blatant and insulting reductionism that has infected Dr. King’s story, his dream will remain unrealized.

This is not the first time that I have found myself lamenting the continued degradation of Dr. King or his politics. Many a conservative will argue that Dr. King’s position on race could be found solely within the context of his famous I Have A Dream Speech. This is perhaps best demonstrated in right-wing media organization PragerU’s video on Dr. King, although very little of it could be directly connected to his actual life.

PragerU’s intentional misunderstanding of Martin Luther King Jr.

For years now, much of Dr. King’s work has been relegated to the phrase, ” I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by
the color of their skin but by the content of their character. ” And while such ideas are beautiful in their optimism, they were not realized in Dr. King’s time, nor are they representative of his view of racism. Little is said of his condemnation of the political system, which rendered the vote useless or inaccessible to black Americans even to this day.

We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his I Have A Dream Speech, 1963.

If anything, America’s relationship with Dr. King is almost entirely based on condemning new forms of black activism. Or at the very least, what America believes is new black activism. Many an armchair commentator will look at today’s questions of systemic racism, privilege, and power and will invoke those words by Dr. King in the hopes that they will have restrained the demand for justice, all while pretending to serve justice itself.

This is especially true when protest tactics are discussed. This was brazenly displayed when states across this nation enacted laws to protect drivers who drove through protestors blocking the roads. The justification for this attack on civic disobedience lies in the idea these protesters are disruptive in their methods and that such disruption can never be tolerated. In doing so, Americans once again miss the point of Dr. King’s work and the methods he used to compel change.

In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, King condemned this very approach.

I must confess that over the last 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 the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until 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

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963.

It is not the mere presence of picket signs or chants that change systems, as King well knew. Disruption of the status quo is fundamental to the principles that built King into the legend we now claim to honor. Far from being respectful or even restrained in his protest, King’s entire premise depended on the disruption and defiance against injustice. It is no surprise as to why he was so willing to be arrested, as it was his arrest that disrupted the power structure that demanded his obedience.

Associated Press, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even on the issue of racism itself, Americans still miss the point. Many Americans will argue that racism is nothing more than the presence of prejudice towards one group or more. Again, this position seeks to justify itself in King’s famed dream. Proponents of this position will further argue that there is little responsibility within the white community to change the system as it is. To those who hold this belief, the idea of a collective responsibility to achieve human dignity for all is the same as white guilt, and once again, this position is rejected through King’s words. However, this intentional misunderstanding fails to realize King’s view of civic responsibility.

In his work, Where do we go from here (1967), King warned that white Americans bear responsibility for their failure to challenge the status quo and change the conditions they readily turn a blind eye to.

For the answer to how the Negro’s status came to be what it is does not lie essentially in the world of the Negro, but in the world of the white. In short, white America must assumethe guilt for the black man’s inferior status.

Martin Luther King Jr. “Where we do we go from here,” pg. 72.

Dr. King further explained that there was never a serious movement to enact the full measure of equality for African-Americans. To this day, that remains remarkably pertinent. While it would be a mistake to say that Dr. King endorsed the idea of inherent white guilt, the responsibility for improving society and undoing the damaging systems which have been reaffirmed by the continued complicity of Americans remains critical to Dr. King’s critique of America. Any understanding of Dr. King’s legacy requires an acceptance of his radicalism as well as recognition of the sad truth that America remains just as prejudiced today as it was when Dr. King lived.

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