History, particularly in western society, has a way of sanitizing the lives and contributions of revolutionaries in order to better integrate them into the broader “project” of civilization. As a result, we often find ourselves presented with an image of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an uncomplicated advocate for zen-like peace, patience, and compassion for those who would see him harmed.
We are led to believe that this man—who was, in reality, a “social justice warrior” who knew that the violence non-white people faced was multivariate; that the punishments for being black came in the form of arrests, of lynching, of denial of basic resources and opportunities, of unearned contempt by people who knew nothing of your life but often actively contributed to your suffering. He spoke out against such injustices—spoke out against our country’s long history of prioritizing violence abroad and individual enrichment for a select few within over correcting our moral and material errors and developing robust programs to uplift the people of our country as a matter of principle rather than an exception doled out periodically as public attitudes shift the capricious whims of people in office.
Many people who believe in their heart of hearts that they believe in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message know precious little about it because much of it has been left out to comfort our society and spare us the agony of facing an unflattering reflection… or the unfortunate truth that, in reality, Martin Luther King, Jr. would face much of the same vitriol today that he did in his own time. I know this because I listen carefully, and see how people readily dismiss or detest those who walk in this man’s footsteps and continue to do the work of building true, moral justice in this country. Our distance from the bleakest moments of our cultural memory is much shorter than you might think.
This is not to suggest that the people who quote Martin Luther King, Jr. without understanding the breadth of his mission and what he believed are “bad people”. It is not to suggest that they are failures for having accepted a deceptive narrative about this man that takes much of the confrontational, difficult part about his message (the important meat that would liberate us all) out of the equation.
Instead, my purpose is to encourage deeper engagement with Dr. King, and reflection on what his life and work actually consisted of. Take time to learn more about him and from your peers—my black elders (including many members of my whole family), whose memories of lynchings, and racial violence are a part of their lived experiences and not just words in a history book. The truth is more complicated than it seems—and more difficult. But with that truth come the keys to reconciliation and, I hope, true healing, change, and liberation.