Today I revisited Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," which I recommend that you also revisit (or read for the first time). As I listened to King's voice reading the letter, it became undeniably apparent that we as a white culture have largely sanitized Dr. King in such a way that his legacy fits neatly within our preferred narrative. It's human nature to do this but it's not helpful, particularly at this time in America, to look at history through such a lens. We give ourselves too much credit and reduce the story of black and white, to black and white. Have we mythologized and scrubbed clean his image to make us feel safer and better about our own actions, or lack thereof?
Many are not aware of or do not remember the harsh fifteen-year opposition to the creation of a King-related federal holiday. The idea for a holiday honoring Dr. King was first proposed by Congressman John Conyers, a mere four days after King's assassination. The bill was rejected, but was proposed again and again by both Conyers and New York Representative Shirley Chisholm until it gained enough bipartisan support that it was begrudgingly signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1983. Some states were quite slow - if not defiant - in adopting the holiday. When he was elected in 1987, Arizona governor Evan Mecham - as his very first act in office - rescinded the King holiday. In 1999, more than fifteen years after its passage, New Hampshire became the last state to sign the holiday legislation into law. It was only in 2000 that Utah became the last state to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day by name (changing it from the innocuous Human Rights Day) and South Carolina became the last state to make the day a paid holiday for state employees - who up until that point could choose between celebrating the King holiday or one of three Confederate-related holidays. Today, three states - Arkansas, Mississippi, and my home state of Alabama - also celebrate January 15th as Robert E. Lee Day.
On days like this, a sea of platitudes washes over social media and we pick mostly Dr. King's easy and less-challenging words to represent our own feelings and values. Fair enough, I suppose. Dr. King did indeed say, "I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear," and "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Those quotes are both beautiful and innocuous enough for comfortable white people to post on Instagram without fear of criticism.
But King also said, "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." And consider: "The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be ... The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."
And, perhaps most challenging to those who pat themselves on the back for being non-racist, rather than anti-racism:
"I must confess that over the last 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 the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er 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 can't agree with your methods of direct action;' who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a 'more convenient season.'"
This forthright, provocative Martin is just as true and authentic as the more easily embraced Martin. Given what I have seen emerge over the past few years, there are many who use the example of King's worldwide acceptance and Barack Obama's presidency as evidence of a supposed post-racial America. Was Obama not the realization of King's oft-touted dream that all should be judged on character, rather than the color of their skin?
Those who propose this thesis are not offering anything more than anecdotal evidence that having a black president improved the lives of every black person and they cannot rationally state that electing a black president negated centuries of violence and inequity; what they incorrectly assess is that race is now less of a barrier to success and that equal opportunity exists in housing, the justice system, employment, and health care (among other areas) because of Barack Obama. I hear more and more that America is now and should be colorblind - ideas that I find both overly idealistic and wrongheaded.
When the Voting Rights Act - a large-scale symbol of King's legacy - was passed, those who opposed it did not, as a result, admit they were wrong and promise to mend their misguided ways. No, those people continued to live on and propagate their hatred and bigotry, often passing those ideas along to their offspring. There are millions of others who would loudly protest that they are not racist, but won't admit that they're actually desperately uncomfortable having a conversation about race. When President Obama decried the killing of Trayvon Martin, saying the teenager could have been his son, he was accused of fanning the flames of racism that had supposedly, until that moment, been held at bay. But racism is not a yes/no proposition; it exists on a spectrum and even those of us who care deeply about issues of race and equality have our own biases to address.
I hesitate to suppose that, given that prevalent sentiment of a post-racial America, a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday might not be passed by current conservative leadership. Would he, like Obama, be accused of creating and inflaming racism by pointing out its existence? In his time, he was seen more often as an agitator and and an opportunist, not a benevolent uniter.
It's easy and obvious to say that racial inequality is wrong. But segregation, discrimination, and white supremacy still reside openly in America and yet we look at civil rights as a done deal. Chris Lebron wrote in the New York Times, "Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. I am concerned that his statement is sometimes taken to hold a view of historical necessity — that oppression has a shelf life, that marginalization has an expiration date. Despite his religious convictions, Dr. King’s life was marked by the relationship between moral sense and action. The arc of the moral universe is long but bends only where the actions of good and brave people put to shame and rest the beliefs of the morally lazy and untoward."
Today, like every day, we have the opportunity to address that marginalization and many of us have the choice or privilege as to whether we want to address it at all. Today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, affords us the opportunity to unite in honor of a brave, history-making figure. I believe that Dr. King used his humanity as an effective tool - and for that reason it makes little sense to deify him and rob him of that same humanity.