by Gennette Cordova
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and this year, there is an exigent need to honor the late, great civil rights icon by pushing back against the whitewashing of his monumentally radical legacy. This year, consider adopting the spirit of his economic message, rejecting the inaccurate translations of his words, and committing to his goals of disrupting and dismantling white supremacy.
At some point, between King’s assassination and when I was growing up in the ’90s, he had become an essentially unimpeachable figure whose name was synonymous with peace, righteousness, and justice. As a result of this deserved deification, people no longer feel comfortable demonizing him or the movement he led, as they did when he was alive. Instead, a growing swath of people have opted to embrace a completely sanitized, and at times antithetical, version of him.
The words “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” from King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech are certainly the most well-known words he ever spoke. Despite his massive popularity, they’re the only words of his that many Americans know, and they’re regularly taken out of context.
I’ve personally had this exact quote cited to me as an argument in favor of not discussing issues of race — namely white supremacy. “Why are we discussing race?” people will ask, typically decrying the Movement for Black Lives or the nonexistent critical race theory being taught to elementary school kids. “Didn’t Dr. King say we should focus on the content of people’s character, not on race?”
For those who’ve taken the time to familiarize themselves with any of King’s actual work beyond cherry-picked soundbites and disingenuous regurgitations from political leaders, it’d be impossible to interpret that line in this way. In his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, published the year before his assassination, he says plainly, “White Americans must recognize that justice for Black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.” King’s dreams of a day where his children wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin was a clear longing for his Black babies to one day be free from living under the scourge of anti-Black racism. He never once urged Black folks to be silent on the issue of race and never suggested that discussing race and racism was to blame for exacerbating racial tensions.
Coincidentally, his 1967 assertion that white people as a whole are simply not putting forth the effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance is a perfect explanation for the self-serving bludgeoning of King’s teachings that we see from mainstream America. “It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn,” he said unambiguously.
The sanitation of his words also extends into people’s (perhaps intentional) misunderstanding of King’s feelings about protests. Dr. King was a minister, a human rights activist, and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. He preached non-violence. He dreamt out loud of a world with more peace. He wanted Black people to rise above retaliating against harm-doers.
Today, however, that call for non-violence is used to chide racial justice protests of all types. I’ve even heard people criticize protests that block traffic by claiming that King didn’t disrupt people’s lives with his protests. As noted in the urgent words of “Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963),” King never wavered in his contention that true liberation or equality would never be peacefully handed over to the oppressed by the oppressor — that we’d have to stand and fight for it.
Even with his calls for pacifism in the fight for civil rights, he was still regularly depicted as a divisive figure who incited riots.
At just 26 years old, King helped carry out the Montgomery Bus Boycott, leading the effort to become one of the most successful boycotts in history and solidifying his place as one of the most important political leaders of the era. The success of the historical act of resistance also made King one of the most hated men in the country — shortly after, his family home was bombed and the FBI began surveilling him.
In an economic sense, King’s teachings went well beyond executing efforts that hurt the profits of companies that upheld racist policies. Toward the end of his life, King became more outspoken about the evils of capitalism. He not only called for the redistribution of wealth, but stressed that racial and economic justice couldn’t be achieved without it. In a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference board in 1967, he called the ills of capitalism as real as those stemming from militarism and racism.
Like many progressives today, he was unequivocal that it was inhumane to continue to spend more and more on the military while neglecting to alleviate the suffering of those most in need in our own country. At that time in 1967, military spending had increased by $44 billion in just two years. Last year, the Biden administration requested $813 billion for the Pentagon, for the 2023 fiscal year alone, as our nation’s housing crisis worsens and income inequality intensifies.
“Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifices,” King once said, in a 1967 speech titled “The Three Evils of Society.” “Capitalism was built on the exploitation of Black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor, both Black and white, both here and abroad.”
The next year, he was assassinated.
As we head into a time of increasing instability and overt racism, with the failings of capitalism closing in on us and a culture war that has, among other things, hindered the ability of teachers to even discuss racism in the classroom, let’s reclaim the true spirit of King’s work and words, and be firm in calling out the hypocrisy of those who use his name in vain.
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Gennette Cordova is a writer, organizer, and social impact manager. She contributes to publications like Teen Vogue and Revolt TV and runs an organization, Lorraine House, which seeks to build and uplift radical communities through art and activism.
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