By third grade, I could rattle off the highlights of Dr. King’s life and career — including dates — with perfection. My encyclopedic knowledge of the most influential civil rights leader in history was a source of immense pride for my parents. Any family function was marked by my parents directing me in an impromptu recitation of all I had memorized.
Even at 8-years-old, I recognized that despite his status as a purveyor of racial harmony, Dr. King’s life’s work belonged to black people. Unofficial, unspoken and bold as it may be, I stand by that declaration. Black people selfishly claiming King’s legacy — his service and tireless fight — is more crucial now than ever before, as passively-racist white America attempts to brazenly usurp ownership of King’s work and words, using reinterpreted and reimagined history to manipulate black resistance and quell a budding revolution.
As iconic a figure as King remains, holding him up as the archetype of black excellence is racist in and of itself. Assuming a monolith black aspiration to mirror King’s politics, eloquence and status is the most important prerequisite for doling out admonishments of disappointing the revered leader. “King would not approve of this,” was standard script during last year’s riots in Baltimore and the Ferguson riots the year before. This rebranded Dr. King, a man disgusted with the common savagery of his people, is strategically dishonest, ignoring the reverend’s explicit assignment of blame for the reactive violence of his people to chronic, pervasive, violent oppression and exploitation at the hands of a white owned and operated system.
Even the quoting of excerpts from the “I Have a Dream” speech synonymous with the leader is at least a misinterpretation of the message and at most a blatant refusal to self-reflect. When King fantasized that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed,” his words in no way sought to allocate responsibility for the terrorization of his people equally among black and white people as is the popular reframing of his message. King’s rhetoric was a call to action for white people to deconstruct a racist system exclusively of their own design and benefit, not an urging of black people to assist with destroying a system in which they held no power.
Moreover, the ace-in-the-hole one liner, “My parents marched with Dr. King,” even if true, is an ironic endorsement of the privilege white people refuse to accept exists. That attending the March on Washington would absolve not only the attendees but their descendants from doing the work to end state-sanctioned violence, economic, employment, academic and political discrimination against black people is inconceivably illogical. Further, the very same people who argue that their success is solely the result of their own hard work and not their parents, are now content to inherit their parents’ alleged status as freedom fighters even as they use that status to silence black voices.
Now, nearly five decades after King was assassinated, the children and grandchildren of people who spat on, beat and plotted against King are eager to change sides, without first admitting that their predecessors created and maintained the conditions King was forced to navigate. They’re content to develop amnesia, forgetting how they heard their parents lambaste King, labeling him a troublemaker, uppity and an outside agitator, cheering his arrests and demise. They’ve realized their parents were on the wrong side of history, and have appointed themselves copy editors, crossing out the parts of story that don’t fit their narrative, and embellishing or outright fictionalizing as necessary.
Dr. King may have received tactical and spiritual support from white sympathizers. He certainly championed non-violent protest and the ideal of everyone being judged by the “content of their character” and not the color of their skin. However, let no mistake be made, King was in service to his own people. This black man, educated at a black college, married to a black woman, fathering black children, bred, grown and nourished on the rich culture and history of blackness, fought with such tenacity and vigor so that his own people could rise from the crushing burden of persecution.
King’s blackness is paramount to everything he represents. The brilliance of his oratory style was honed at black churches where black preachers inspired black people. He refused to abandon his mission in the wake of constant death threats, savage assaults and state sabotage because of a commitment to the black people he loved and owed repayment for their reverence. Our shared ancestry and experiences are the title, and black people, no matter the current leasee, are the lien holders of his dream, his inspiration, his power, his likeness.
So if the power behind the name and labor of Dr. King must be invoked, use it responsibly. Mention Selma not as an example of non-violent black resistance to be copied by black people, but as an example of white savagery even in the face of non-violence to be avoided by white people. Quote “I Have a Dream” not to calm the fire inside the mothers of black children slain at the hands of police, but to motivate white people condoning and excusing black genocide to examine their own complicity in black oppression. If his legacy must be borrowed, let it be used with care, integrity, and honesty, so that it is returned in the same pristine condition.
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