MLK’s Legacy Isn’t Your Shield

I have been thinking about writing an essay on this for some time. Mine is an unpopular opinion to the general public and to the Black community. In fact, part of me thinks that my momma would pop me upside my head for what I’m about to say, but as our relationship grows I believe our views have found more intersections than previously fathomed. Because of that growth, that ability to find common ground in such dichotomously strained conceptions, I believe that it’s possible my unpopular opinion can change a mind or two. And I believe that in changing minds Black folx will get closer and closer to liberation.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the ultimate personification of personhood in our Black community. He was a highly-educated, well-spoken, charismatic, God-fearing man who found reasonable wealth for himself and his family. He persevered in the face of injustice and his example is one we emulate in discussing the life of a “good Black man.”

But we have forgotten a lot. That this religion, and the nonviolent movement, is deeply rooted in respectability politics. That this man, who preached love of family and God above all else, continuously broke one of the most sacred tenants of a God-fearing husband–he cheated allllll the time. Finally, we all seem to forget that Dr. King was assassinated by the United States government, as proven by the civil case that the King family won in 1999.

When we talk about Dr. King’s legacy, it seems that America, and even the Black community, has selective recall–we talk about his passive approach. His “quiet bravery.” His love of his family and God. His determination for equality.

Whenever I hear Dr. King’s name invoked these days, it’s usually in one of these situations:

  1. White people in discussing their opinion of racially-charged current events
  2. Black people giving their opinions on how to react to racially-charged current events
  3. MLK Day
  4. Black History Month

Apparently this needs to be said: Martin Luther King, Jr. is not your shield to use whenever radical unapologetic Blackness makes you uncomfortable. His legacy was not, is not, that of a “good Negro” who politely asked for our liberation in the Civil Rights Movement. He was not as radically progressive as other activists like Malcolm X, but I also don’t believe that he would not have joined the Black Liberation Movement, taking on a more forceful stance had he not been assassinated.

White people: Invoking Dr. King’s legacy is not a talisman to erase your passive racism.

Dr. King is not your shield. You cannot use his legacy to deflect your privilege or to erase the impact your diet racism inflicts. Your fragility cannot, and will not be shielded by invoking Dr. King’s name or his legacy of nonviolence. In fact, using him as a paragon of decency when you enter into spaces specifically calling out racial injustice shows how little you understand of his legacy.

But don’t take my word for it. Dr. King was outspoken in his view of passive whites. In his 1967 book (yes, the year before he died) titled Where Do We Go From Here, he said the following:

“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans. White America would have liked to believe that in the past ten years a mechanism had somehow been created that needed only orderly and smooth tending for the painless accomplishment of change. Yet this is precisely what has not been achieved. [….] These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races.

Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.

Think about that the next time you try to bring up Dr. King to Black people. I believe Dr. King called it your “ever-present tendency to backlash” but today it has a new name – white fragility. Your fragility has no place in our discussions of our oppression. We do not want your input (unless we asked for it) about what you think we should do to not be harassed, assaulted, beaten, murdered and otherwise dehumanized in a society that gives you power and privilege just on account of your skin tone. And when you say, as did quite a few of my former friends, that Black protesters should be nonviolent like Dr. King keep in mind this honest truth from Assata Shakur in her autobiography:

“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”

Black people: Your respectability politics will not save you.

Dr. King’s narrative of nonviolence and Black community’s instance to not make waves in the face of oppression and severe, violent brutality does not work. If it had, wouldn’t we have “achieved” personhood by now? Wouldn’t Sandra Bland’s murderer, Freddie Grey’s murderers, Michael Brown’s murderer, Mya Hall’s murderer be in jail now? Wouldn’t they be facing the same “justice” that we see in heinous crimes committed against our white peers? Why have we as a society forgotten that police brutality began in the role of the overseer as modern-day slavery evolved into the prison pipeline?

Why have we forgotten the pulpit of Christianity where this message begins and seeps into the community was not a religion we collectively knew and claimed until white slave owners gave it to us? We pray to the white man’s God to liberate us from the white man, who uses the same God to justify our dehumanization.

(Oh, I know my former church family’s red in the face at that.)

Dr. King, and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, got some much right, but eventually the progress stalled because we kept trying to rewrite the rules of a game the white man created without understanding we needed to stop playing their game–period.

We have forgotten so much. The Black Nationalist Movement and the Black Power Movement propelled us into a reality that glimpsed the true potential of Black agency and the US government and our base tore us down until we shattered into who we are today. The Black American identity is intricately, uniquely tied to white supremacy, and because we have not understood that as a people, we continuously cycle in white consciousness without being aware of what’s really going on. We keep preaching, for example, that being a good, nonviolent Negro will keep us safe from harm when society shows us anything but. In October 2015, Zach Stafford wrote in his article “Respectability politics won’t save the lives of Black Americans” for The Guardian that:

“Wearing a tie doesn’t rectify the fact that black people are incarcerated at six times that rate of white people. You having the ‘right job’ doesn’t give a black person a job as the community faces an unemployment rate of twice that of white people. And saying #AllLivesMatter doesn’t take the bullet out of the literally countless black bodies shot dead by police officers.

Instead, believing that our lives only matter when we ‘act right’ only fuels the very dangerous ways in which our world operates. It protects the structural racism that no one ever wants to talk about or challenge. And it inevitably makes you believe that your life depends on a well enunciated ‘yes, sir.’

No one’s life should rest on ‘yes, sir’ or ‘thank you.’ Ever.”

MLK Day is not the only day to remember the Civil Rights Movement.

Firstly, Black people have not been liberated. I’m not saying we haven’t come far–we have the right to own property, to vote, to marry interracially; we have Blacks in high-power positions all over the world. Our president is half-Black and the FLOTUS is so flawlessly graced in melanin that she slayyysss our hearts with her Blackness all in that big white monstrosity we called the White House. But when our own President can’t utter the words #BlackLivesMatter in a press conference for fear of being too unapologetically Black we have a problem. When police officers who have murdered Black people, Black youth, on video still walk away with their jobs and overall public opinion intact, with nothing more than a slap on the wrists because eh…circumstantial evidence. When that still happens in 2015 we have a serious problem, America. Lest we not forget Dr. King’s words in “The Other America” (1968):

“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

The Civil Rights Movement is just a period of a larger movement for the freedom of marginalized peoples. It was not just Rosa Parks and Dr. King. It wasn’t about only Black people and their struggle to be recognized as human beings. It was about all people trying to get a step closer to those basic human rights we keep hearing about the Constitution providing, but always see consistently applying to a small portion of the American population. Perfect example currently is the militia men in Oregon.

Don’t wait to MLK Day every year to talk about the movement. It’s still going on by another name–#BlackLivesMatter. It will continue to go on until ALL Black people have the opportunity and freedom to live the life they want to live.

Black history is American history; do not relegate this to a month.

Dr. King is not the only civil rights leader who made an impact in the movement. Black history is about more than his speeches; in fact Black history did not start with the civil rights movement or even slavery. Black history is literally as old and timeless the Homo sapiens species, so relegating it to a month just shows how little common knowledge or respect the American community has for it collectively. Black American history is intricately tied to the foundation of this country–from the first settlers to the first slaves, to the Revolutionary War, to the Civil War, to the Industrial Revolution, to today. To only remember Dr. King and either ignore other civil rights leaders, or not give them the credit for their contributions to a period of time which lead to much advancement in the Black community is, quite frankly, ignorant.


Overall the responsibility of change–of education and reform–lies within each of us.

Radical pro-blackness is not necessarily anti-whiteness, but it is anti-white supremacy. Once we as a society own and accept that anti-blackness is intricately tied to white supremacy and both are what our society’s foundation of identity is based upon, then we can move towards a more just society.

Until then I leave you with one of my personal favorite quotes I clapback with whenever someone invokes the name of Dr. King from  Letter From a Birmingham Jail (1963):

“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”


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