Thursday, April 30, 2015

0 "What Would Dr. King Think?"

By: Marvin DeBose

He's our convenient hero. We see him in old grainy footage from the 1960s smiling, marching and giving speeches.

When people yell slurs at him, he is unfazed. When attacked physically, he is calm.

People see him as America's symbol of peace and racial harmony. He's our go-to Black leader for any words of wisdom that address social issues, such as race, but aren't too controversial (Sorry, Malcolm X).

Of course, I'm talking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who's seen as our our happy-go-lucky, turning-the-other-cheek, loving-his-enemies, courageous leader.

We typically think of him within the context of the last few minutes of his 1963 "I have a dream speech" where he speaks of being a time where people can be judged by the content of their character rather than their skin color. He talks optimistically speaks of being "free at last"... And usually that's where our memory of Dr. King stops.

But what happened after the "Dream"? What happened up until Martin Luther King's death in 1968?

Photo credit: Uptown Magazine

Truth be told, Dr. King was not as much of the beloved all-American that he is portrayed as being. Throughout much of his life, more so in the last five years of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. was vilified. He was called a "troublemaker" by some, an "agitator" by others, and "The most notorious liar in the country" by the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Why?

This is because Martin Luther King was a figure who was peaceful, but incredibly defiant to the social order of this country. He was always growing and evolving, and he was even becoming more radicalized in his approach in his later years.

He spoke against U.S. militarism, he advocated for reparations for Black people, he led protests for housing discrimination in the North and South and he worked to organize for poor people calling for a redistribution of wealth.

His optimism toward American racial equality even changed as King, in his later years, would refer to his "dream" of racial equality as "turning into a nightmare" in the US.

In the last speech of his life, King's tone of optimism even seemed change as he spoke of "some difficult days ahead".

Fast forward, to 2015, America has found a purpose for Dr. King now that he's long gone, America's media machine has helped to paint a new picture of King. We've ignored his more controversial quotes and views and created some passive, ever-optimistic, non-threatening figure used mostly a means to chastise, pacify, or even silence Black people who are angry in times of social unrest.

When the uprisings in Ferguson happened, I heard, among many King references, "This isn't Dr. King's dream!"

In the week since the riots in Baltimore have occurred I've seen more Martin Luther King references on social media than EVER.

All of a sudden everyone is a Martin Luther King biographer:

"You know, Martin Luther King wouldn't support this"
"Martin Luther King is probably turning in his grave" 
"What would Dr. King think about this?"

Well, a better question is "What did Dr. King think?"

Let's look at history, because in 1967, Dr. King actually told us what he thinks about riots:

"I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. 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, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention."

As we can see, Dr. King understood the function and meaning behind riots in America. He didn't necessarily condemn or support them, he just understood them for what they were. He didn't go into a long speech on nonviolence, he just told us that riots are rooted in deeper societal issues which we ignore.

Many people who read this may continue to utilize MLK's quotes whenever they feel the need to tell Black people how to feel about social injustice, but must pose the question:

Where are all of these MLK quotes when police kill unarmed people? Usually, I don't see too many people telling police about "Loving your enemies".

Where is that peacefulness when it comes to our view of any person in our prison system, do we "love our enemies" in the penitentiaries?

Where is this MLK-like desire to work toward racial understanding when we ignore the racism which exists around us everyday?

Where are the MLK quotes when we talk about war?

Who are we to we exploit the legacy of Dr. King in order to condescendingly play moral judges to people who have been raised in a society void of a moral conscience.

If we want to promote Dr. King's legacy the right way, maybe we should be less focused on criticizing a riot and more focused of eliminated the social ills which lead to a riot.

Maybe we should be helping to organize people to create more positive forms of political activism.

Maybe we should examine why so many riots occur in poor neighborhoods...

...Or maybe that's too much work.

If we aren't prepared to do the work to understand the real problems, if we don't have a love those people who riot, the same kind of love which we tell them to have, then we have no right to use that Dr. King's words as a tool to shame anyone.

For such use of his words are empty, hollow and meaningless, and serve as a mockery of all for which he lived and died.


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