How (Not) to Talk About MLK
This is part 4 of a series called “Why White People Can’t Talk About Race.” In the first post, I carefully defined race-ism and further argued that rampant individualism makes it nearly-impossible for White people to engage honestly with the notion that race-ism is an alive and active socio-cultural problem in America. A major reason most White folks can’t engage with this possibility is because of the way our country’s history is frequently stripped of its racialized reality. In short, we radically misunderstand the history we stand in, and the previous 2 posts were an attempt to correct such misunderstanding of the frequently-overlooked racial components of the story of America up through the early-to-mid 1900s.
Unfortunately, our misunderstandings don’t stop at 1950.
See, especially for us White Folks today, it’s easy to look back and say, “I would have walked right next to MLK!” or “I would have joined a sit-in protest!” But, statistically, we probably wouldn’t.
Even in the throes of 1960s Civil Rights, most Americans did not approve of MLK, Freedom Riders or sit-ins. In fact, those disapproval numbers are even higher than the current disapproval numbers for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Let me spell out the implications of that: if you are uncomfortable or ambivalent regarding Black Lives Matter, or are angry at Colin Kaepernick, then, strictly by the numbers, it is even more likely that you would have stood against Martin Luther King and Civil Rights.
To be sure, I am absolutely not trying to make a simplistic argument that Black Lives Matter and MLK are the same. They are not, and it is certainly possible to have a thoughtful, critical perspective of today’s protests without also being anti-Civil-Rights. But I urge you, in humility, not to give yourself more credit than is due.
The bald truth is that, if you are a White American (like me), most of us would likely have been uncomfortable with what MLK was doing in the 60s. Most of us would have rather him just calm down, stop stirring the pot, and let things work out on their own time. And we would have been wrong.
And lest you think I’m only talking about Conservatives, you’re not off the hook if you’re a left-leaning, moderately-progressive, White American (also like me). We need to remember that MLK wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” specifically to liberal community leaders who were urging him to slow down his movement. That’s sobering.
All this is to set the stage for the key argument of this post: that the greatest, most iconic hero of modern Civil Rights for Black Americans is frequently twisted into an unrecognizable, mythical figure who preached a soft, fuzzy ‘dream’ of equality that doesn’t disturb White Americans’ idolatrous love of comfort and the status quo. And even more tragically, this distortion is frequently employed today to perpetuate harmful misunderstandings of our current moment.
I can’t say this strongly enough: if you use Martin Luther King's work as confirmation of your own discomfort with movements like Black Lives Matter and the kneeling NFL players, then you are in actuality an active participant in the same cultural forces that are working against the ‘dream’ he was talking about in that speech you won’t stop quoting.
Yes, Martin Luther King had a beautiful vision of a society founded upon love and equality, in which all races could peacefully coexist, hand in hand. Yes, he boldly proclaimed that the way towards this vision was through self-giving servanthood and non-violence. Yes, these words should still stir our souls.
But if you think he would tell protesters to calm down, remember that he said, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” and that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”*
Also, remember that he was arrested almost 30 times, many of which were for charges related to “civil disobedience” and happened after he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech.
If you think he was only concerned with changing the so-called “hearts” of racist people, rather than changing legal institutions in America, remember he said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”**
And that, “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”***
And finally, maybe most importantly, if you think that MLK would unequivocally condemn protesters that become involved in riots, then read his own words given to the American Psychological Association, in which he drew on Victor Hugo’s quote: “If a soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”
Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. . . The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison. Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.****
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a brilliant man with a complicated personal life. He was flanked and supported by many unsung heroes of the Civil Right movement. He was a fiery, prophetic critic of American laws and governance, but he was deeply patriotic in his belief that our society could be fixed. His work and legacy defies shallow categorization.
I can’t claim to know exactly how he would comment on our current racial and political climate, but I'm willing to bet that whatever he would say would make many of us White Folks convicted and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I know that we need his voice now as much as we ever have.
His real voice. Not carefully-selected soundbites from one speech that allow us White Folks to distort the legacy that he literally gave his life for.
Sources for Quotes in this piece are linked below. All emphasis was added by me: