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 a few white sympathizers, but if his support was as widespread as white America now likes to pretend, why then, was his fight so long and who was he fighting? If the white masses were right there with King propping up his righteous activism, then who were all the rabid racists sending him death threats, bombing the homes and churches of Black people, and lynching Black people and leaving their mutilated lifeless bodies in the center of town for all to view? If so many white people were good and on the right side of history, who the hell were King’s adversaries?
And while 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, make no mistake, 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 all but decreed in a will his legacy to the Black people he ultimately gave his life to free.
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. Quote I Have a Dream not to calm the fire inside the mothers of Black children slain at the hands of police, but to direct white people condoning Black genocide to examine their own complicity in Black oppression and get their own houses in order. Use King’s fiery sermons to set ablaze the maniacal ideology of casual racists who do nothing to destroy the de facto caste system that oversees Black people’s genocide while posturing to love all humankind. Know the King who deplored capitalism and imperialism, never shying from public criticism of America’s politics around the world.
And do not stop at those quotes that are easily manipulated into an endorsement of colorblind social existence. Do not hand pick the words which best suit your rebranding of this radical Black man as a peacemaker. Halt yourself from regurgitating the vanilla excerpts from King’s library of essays and speeches.
Instead, refer to King’s explicit condemnation of this country and its white power majority who continued to administer the system that eroded at the humanity and lives of Black people. Break out the verbal AR-15s that rip through the myth of the docile negro and leave racists’ ego bleeding. Paraphrase the real King. The King who said:
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”
If his legacy must be borrowed, let it be used with care, integrity, tact and honesty, so that it is returned in the same pristine condition. And let not his words be coopted only to inspire others. Let his life and work be an example of unyielding courage and a willingness to give one’s life for what is right.
Otherwise, keep our King’s name outta your mouth!