The Audacious Co-Optation of Dr. KingBreaking News
tags: racism, civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr.
I grew up with people around me badmouthing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To hear white folk in east central Mississippi in the 1960s and 1970s tell it, he was the very root of all evil, and everything that was wrong in their lives was his damn fault. In fact, Dr. King had marched in my hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., in 1966 amid violent chaos when I was a kid—he even spoke near the law-enforcement murderers of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
Yes, Dr. King gave his life for the search for move love and less hate, but he was not only spreading a message of love, as so many white thieves of his legacy try to say today. His message was pure fire—and he was out to hold a mirror up to our nation about white Americans (not only Mississippians and southerners)—who supported using terror to maintain power over everyone else and to enjoy the fruits of that terrorism.
Throughout his life, Dr. King toiled and ultimately sacrificed his life in the fight to change power structures and systems established and enforced to keep white people on the top and Black people on the bottom. He wanted America to understand that enslaved people actually built this nation (after many of their owners figured out how to steal the land from Indigenous Americans and forcefully remove them from land they coveted).
None of this history is pretty or honorable, and Dr. King never tried to say it was or to cover up any of it. He wanted it taught to every person in this country and certainly wanted children to grow up having learned the lessons of the past. He knew that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
And he was blunt that he was not likely to live long enough to see that happen.
By the time a white man shot him at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Dr. King was more focused than ever on systemic racism and the links with poverty, as well as a harsh critic of both capitalism and the Vietnam War. He was putting together the Poor People’s Campaign with the goal of occupying Washington, D.C., to bring more attention to the racism-poverty connection.
Of course, I didn’t know all that until I was well into adulthood. I knew most white folks around me in Mississippi hated him, and I knew that he was a martyred hero against racism. Basically, like many Americans, I was fed the whitewashed version of Dr. King, which has worsened over the decades.
I was nearly 40 when I studied with Dr. Manning Marable at Columbia University and learned the larger and more accurate history of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and so many Black freedom fighters. I’ve also read his speeches; I know fully what Dr. King was about and what he supported. Just read his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop Speech” in Memphis. “Be true to what you say on paper,” he told Americans from Memphis shortly before he died.
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