After Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones used the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in a speech commemorating the life of the civil rights icon, historians are saying the discomfort she caused is indicative of how muddled the late leader’s stances have become over the years.
King’s legacy has been diluted to the point where even he wouldn’t recognize it, the King scholars said, underscoring how White authorities have used the civil rights leader for political prowess and how the United States is uncomfortable with inconvenient facts.
King, who was killed in 1968, wasn’t widely revered as the leader people know today, but was depicted as a “charlatan,” “demagogue” and “traitor,” Hannah-Jones pointed out in her speech, which the elite Union League Club of Chicago hosted Monday.
Hannah-Jones told the audience that Black people in the United States can’t achieve justice without radical structural change, noting that the “evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and racism.”
“The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation,” she said in a tweet thread that relayed some of her speech. “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance.”
The first half of her speech, she eventually told the crowd, had not been her words, but excerpts from King’s work, with the word Negro swapped for Black to not tip off the difference in period-accepted verbiage.
Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina in Chicago, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that he gave the invocation for the event, and that he was delighted by Hannah-Jones’s speech.