Today is a day that Americans of all colors, cultures, classes, & creeds (mis)remember the life & witness of Martin Luther King Jr. MLK remains one of the most well known but least understood figures of U.S. History & perhaps even of human history. For the past 12 years or so its been my personal ambition to recover, recapture, & reclaim the authentic King. Far too many Americans (& more specifically American christians) consciously & unconsciously betray the legacy of the man whom they profess to deeply revere. Today I want to briefly unpack 10 specific ways that we betray the legacy of Martin.
1) The “Mr Rogers-ification” & “Santa Cluasification” of Martin
Americans have domesticated, sanitized, & as Cornel West has put it, “santa-clausified” King. Contrary to popular belief, King should not be characterized as a jolly, happy, black preacher with a big sack of cheap grace & forgiveness for guilt-ridden white folks & colorblindness for the masses. We have re-imaged MLK & “Mr. Roger-ized” his social-political project. In the minds of too many, King was a southern preacher whose obsession with “racial integration” drove him to crusade the nation in a docile Mr Rogers-like manner begging white sisters & brothers:
“Wont you be, please won’t you be, please won’t you be my neighbor!”
This version of Martin is more devoted to making white folks feel “comfy” than he is to telling the truth about America. It’s this image of King that fuels those who evoke his legacy to derail honest, painful, serious dialogue & work to dismantle white supremacy.
In the final analysis, the real Martin was not a chocolate Santa Clause trying desperately to fit down the chimney of white America. King was a disruptive prophet who spoke hard & bitter truth for the cause of love & justice!
“….the “white backlash” is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities & ambivalences that have always been there. It was caused neither by the cry of Black Power nor by the unfortunate recent wave of riots in our cities. The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that characterized America when the black man [sic] landed in chains on the shores of this nation. The white backlash is an expression of the same vacillations, the same search for rationalizations, the same lack of commitment that has always characterized white America on the question of race.” MLK
2.) Multi-racial Churches That Orbit Around Whiteness
How many times have we heard pastors & partitioners of self-identified “multi-racial” or multi-cultural congregations claim Martin as one of their architects. Quick to quote King’s lament that “Sunday mornings are the most segregated hours of the week” they say that their mere existence is proof that “The Dream” is alive & well. For everything that can be celebrated about these churches there is much to critique. Too often they betray the colorfulness of their pews with mostly white leadership & a white cultural orientation. Research demonstrates that instead of being a space in which momentum is created to overcome structural racism, they actually reify it through the transmission of a weak & white-centered understanding of what “life together” requires. These congregations tend to incorrectly assert that the spatial separation of racial groups is the root problem, instead of seeing it as a symptom of a much deeper spiritual & social issue. Hence, they tend to place a strong emphasis on cross-racial relationship building & place very little emphasis (if any) on building collective memory of America’s dark history & overcoming present forms of systemic racial injustice. It must be said that mere multiculturalism does not equal anti-racism. King was an anti-racist pastor-activist who deeply cared about the Body of Christ. For that reason he wanted to see diverse followers of Jesus worship & bear witness together as the family of God but his desire did not end there. King’s vision of beloved community was an other-worldly, justice-laced, love-rooted oneness, not a thin unity that conforms to the world’s patterns of racial hierarchy.
“In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” MLK
3.) The Sentimentalizing of MLK’s Love Ethic
MLK once said “I have decided to stick of love, hate is too great a burden to bear.” This quote & others like it are often ripped from the lived witness of King & made to mean almost anything. What was this way of love he spoke of? For King, love was something to be radically embodied in a particular time, space, & place with attention to the on-the-ground spiritual, cultural, & political realities. It was not an “ethereal goo” of warm & fuzzy feelings. Far from being abstract, love *concretely* faces & seeks to overcome every barrier to liberation, community, & human flourishing. Love provokes compassion for both enemies & friends, but does not sit by idly in situations of oppression & state violence. “The way of love” demands a fierce commitment to stand in solidarity with those who are catching hell. King understood love as a call to cut through the numbness of the status quo with disruptive protest! We betray him when we demonize protest movements like The Movement for Black Lives for making us feel uncomfortable. We betray him when we think “loving our neighbors” is completely disconnected from the work of social transformation. For King, “justice is what love looks like in public.”
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best i power correcting everything that stands against love.” -MLK
4.) Trapping King Inside the “I Have A Dream Speech” Loop
Nothing has proven a more powerful tool in the “post-mortem domestication” of MLK than the attempt to trap him inside of a loop of what is known by most as the “I Have a Dream” speech. The U.S. has imprisoned one of its greatest freedom fighters inside of a strange ‘space time continuum’ in which a short clip from that speech is the totality of his witness & existence. This does two tragic things: First of all, King’s thoughts, speeches, actions, & books beyond that moment are marginalized or erased. Secondly, it distorts the very nature of the speech AND the demonstrations from which those famous lines emerged. King’s speech originally titled “The Cancelled Check” was the climax of the March on Washington for JOBS & FREEDOM. The demands connected to this march in their original form were nothing short of radical. Here are a couple less popular quotes from the speech:
“The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality”
“The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.” MLK
5.) Anemic Solidarity with The Poor & Capitulation to Neoliberal Capitalism
We can’t scapegoat, brow beat, & in live in self-righteous isolation from poor people in one breathe while celebrating Martin Luther King in the next. King’s critique of capitalism can be traced back as early as the 1950s in love letter exchanges with his then girlfriend Corretta Scott. In his latter years King moved his family into a slum apartment in Chicago & was working on a national multi-racial alliance called the “Poor People’s Campaign”. We can’t be deeply committed to the values of a neoliberal capitalism that “demand endless sacrifices from the poor & creation”, while claiming commitments to the eradication of poverty, both at home & abroad. “Neoliberalism is the triumph of the market over all social values”, but King declared that “we must rapidly begin to shift from a thing oriented society to a person oriented society” & warned us that transformation cannot happen when “machines, computers, profit motives, & property rights are considered more important than people.”
“We have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor — both black and white, here and abroad.” MLK
6.) Silence on the Violence of U.S. Militarism & Imperialism
King’s commitment to non-violent civil disobedience & protest is well known. What’s less known, is that King argued that it was hypocritical to demand that black folks protest peacefully while not demanding that the U.S. take a posture of non-violence & peacemaking in the world. Against the advice of many of his close colleagues in the struggle for racial justice, King came out publicly against the war in Vietnam on April 4th 1967 in a speech at the Riverside Church. A year to the date, he’d be gunned down on the balcony of the Loraine Motel in Memphis. During that year King increased the volume & veracity of his condemnation of U.S. militarism & imperialism. Calling America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” King questioned the notion that God had ordained it as some kind of “divine messianic police force”. With the current ongoing bi-partisan support of gargantuan military budgets, war crimes, & excessive amounts of military bases across the world its amazing that an ant-war activist like MLK is even evoked by the political establishment. Martin teaches us that any nation more willing to invest in instruments of death (militarism) than instruments of life (health care) is morally & spiritually bankrupt.:
“The peculiar genius of imperialism was found in its capacity to delude so much of the world into the belief that it was civilizing primitive cultures even though it was grossly exploiting them.”
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” MLK
7.) The Symbolism of Representation w/o The Substance of Transformation
One of the ways in which King’s legacy has been co-opted is the advancement of a (false) version of his vision that fits neatly within liberalism. To assume that any slice of the the black radical tradition is in step with liberalism (or conservatism) is a gross misreading. At his best, King was wholeheartedly in opposition to the idea that mere tweaks of the current system & inclusion within it was the ultimate aim. Therefore, the fulfillment of King’s vision is not merely “black faces in high places” who willfully or inadvertently contribute to the momentum of systemic oppression. King was calling for a revolution of values & boldly proclaimed that “that the whole structure of America must be changed” & “born again” into something entirely different. Yes, representation is important, but it does not necessarily equal transformation. A close look at the emergence of the black political leadership class as mayors, senators, police chiefs, judges, & DA’s, & president reveals how ineffective a strategy of mere inclusion has been. Placing an accommodationist black, brown, queer, immigrant, or women face in front of an oppressive system makes it no less oppressive. In the words of Eduardo Bonilla Silva, “In the post civil rights era you can get false positives; folks who have the “RIGHT” skin color but the wrong politic & therefore we need to move beyond (mere) “epidermic” notions of race to political notions of race.”
“I’m tired of hearing about the “first negro” this & the “first negro” that!” Martin Luther King Jr
“One of the ways of making sure you sanitize any talk about racism is to talk about diversity. We lost sight of attacking issues of poverty, class––with the death of Martin—and moved into an obsession with having black faces in high places. As long as we had those black faces in high places, the poor could live symbolically through them, vicariously through them. Or those black faces themselves, middle class and upper middle class, could claim that somehow they were the index of progress.”
8.) Discipling Our Churches into a Justice-less Gospel
The Gospel of The Kingdom of God is the righting, reordering, renewal, & reconciliaton of ALL THINGS through the life, teachings, death, resurrection, & enthronement of Jesus. Within the scope of God’s redemptive aims in the world is both the reordering of souls AND societies. Sadly, even though Jesus of Nazareth pronounced a blessing on those who “hunger & thirst for justice”, large swaths of the American church label those who hunger & pursue it as unfaithful, unspiritual, & “unbiblical”. The themes of justice & the call to faith-rooted activism for & with the pushed down, left out, & overlooked of society in both the old & new testaments are collapsed into an understanding of The Faith that keeps the unholy status quo in tact. We betray King when we do not disciple followers of Jesus into the work of social justice as a spiritual discipline.
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” MLK
9.) Resisting Trump without Understanding The Systems That Created Him
While its true that we need to keep track of & push back on the ways in which President Donald Trump is narrating & legislating a climate of bigotry, lies, hate, & oppression, that is simply not enough. Donald Trump is the ugly symptom of a soul-cial sickness that has ravaged the American body politic for years, decades, & centuries. He does not appear on the political-landscape ex-nihilo (out of nowhere). No, Trump is the explicit personification of unjust structures, oppressive systems, & cultural idols that have animated U.S. life for centuries. Trump is rightly understood as the most undiluted (presidential) embodiment of what Bell Hooks calls “imperialist white supremacist (hetero)patriarchal capitalism” in the post-civil rights era of hollow civility. He voices out loud what is said in private in the halls of American power. Obama quietly deported over 2 million undocumented people, Trump does it loudly while hurling xenophobic rhetoric. Obama silently dropped 26,000 bombs his last year in office (a rate of 3 per hour) and Trump continues this project while brashly threatening North Korea that “there will be fire & fury the likes of which no one has ever seen”. This is not to say that there aren’t real differences between president 44 & 45. Obama for all his flaws is NOT Trump. However, if we do not take a Kingian lens that understands the deeper issues that gave us Trump, our movements will flatline & simply reproduce what came before him. The following excerpt from King’s eulogy for the 4 little girls killed in the 1963 racial terrorist attack on the church in Birmingham is relevant in this regard:
They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.
10.) Refusing to Acquire an Internationalist & Intersectional Lens of Oppression
The height of King’s socio-political analysis is found in what he called the “triplet evils” of “racism, militarism, & poverty”. King had come to see the interconnectedness of structures of oppression that create the climate for injustice. Refusing to allow his concern to be barricaded by U.S. borders, King was vocal about the plight of the poor, oppressed, war-torn, & exploited people & nations across the globe. Though he was radically committed to justice for black people within the U.S. empire he resisted the temptation to allow that to be the totality of his concern. When we fail to see the “chilling parallels between overseas drone programs and how police treat America’s non-white citizens, with the slightest suspicion escalating into official violence and even death” we betray the thrust of King’s work in his last days. Martin’s internationalist & intersectional lens was the fruit of his long held belief that:
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
(Article written by T. Hawkins)