Shut Up and Leave Martin Luther King Alone

We like our racial icons to be benevolent Santa Claus figures who reaffirm that we’re being good, non-racist people just by continuing to do what we’re doing.

Martin Mills/Getty

Dear Fellow Middle-Class Non-Black People of America:

I’m glad we all seem to like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that we all collectively agreed to put him on stamps and name streets after him and take Monday off in his memory (well, those of us who work for government offices, anyway).

I’m glad that Selma got nominated for Best Picture—it deserves it, and a bunch of other noms besides that it didn’t get. I’m glad that they finally put a memorial up for King in 2011—I was there when it opened, I got to see King’s stern face glaring across the Tidal Basin at the memorial to the great slaveholding president Thomas Jefferson.

I’m glad we lionize Dr. King as a hero, because he deserves it. He was definitely one of my heroes growing up, and one of the first people where I said I needed to seek out all the recorded words they spoke or wrote and study them.

And it’s in that capacity that I beg you, fellow middle-class non-black people—

The best way you can honor Dr. King on his namesake holiday?


I don’t say this lightly. The purpose of dedicating a holiday in his honor, of putting his likeness on stamps and statues and paintings and whatnot, ought to be to keep his legacy alive, to inspire others to continue the great work he helped begin, to keep fighting for the cause he died fighting for.

And there are some of us—all too few of us, but still some of us—who are doing that. Who are keeping up the marches, the sit-ins, the rallies, who are putting their bodies and their lives and their freedom on the line. Who cry out “No Justice, No Peace.”

Those people—they don’t have to shut up.

Everyone else, though?

What do you call it when you have a majority of the country whose knowledge of Dr. King’s oeuvre extends only to the last 30 seconds of the “I Have a Dream” speech? Every year in countless publications white writers decide to riff on that out-of-context coda to write exhaustingly stupid op-ed after exhaustingly stupid op-ed declaring that King’s legacy wasn’t really about black vs. white, that it wasn’t about radically restructuring society, that it was mostly about obeying the law, living an orderly, civil life, and trying your best to “not see race.” Dr. King would want you to be polite. Dr. King would want you to tone down these protests. Dr. King would want you to pull your pants up.

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Americans hear Dr. King’s apocalyptic, utopian vision of a world where “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” And their reaction is to say to themselves, “Gosh, I think we accomplished all that with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.” And then they act somehow surprised when black Americans, by and large, disagree.

This is the man who wrote “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.”

This is a speech that, before it gets to the famous “I Have a Dream” part, spoke of “the fierce urgency of now,” said “1963 is not an end, but a beginning,” said “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” demanded “We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”

How could anyone believe for a second that Dr. King’s dream had been realized, in a world where the median net worth for a white household is almost 10 times that for a black household, where black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and where the spilled blood of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner still cries out for justice?

I mean, we can look at other things Dr. King said. We can look at his 1967 speech against the Vietnam War, where he said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” and compare to the United States today, spending more than $750 billion on the Department of Defense, more than the Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Education combined.

We can look at the initial demands of the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” for a $2 minimum wage, around $14 in today’s money, and chuckle wryly at how our actual minimum wage is half that. We can look at Dr. King’s plans for the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign that fell apart after his assassination, his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, in which he demanded a guaranteed basic income as a fundamental right in modern society, saying “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization.”

Well? How’d we do on eliminating poverty and giving everyone a guarantee of meals to eat and a roof to sleep under, possibly by diverting that money from the cost of endless foreign wars? Oh, that dream of Dr. King’s didn’t work out either, huh?

Well, what should we do about it? Should we keep our heads down, stay polite, vote every four years? A lot of commentators seem to extol Dr. King as some kind of patron saint of moderation, which is funny considering in Letter From Birmingham Jail he wrote “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is ... the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

Seriously. The real Martin Luther King, Jr. was a radical socialist, a revolutionary who wanted to break down society and rebuild it from the ground up, who believed in massive economic redistribution, disarmament of the U.S. military and reparations for black citizens.

He was feared and hated by the white establishment of his time, including the white moderate liberals whose disapproval of his methods inspired the Letter From Birmingham Jail, and including an FBI so desperate to destroy him they concocted a scheme to try to get him to kill himself.

I wish they hadn’t stopped fighting him. I wish they still called him a commie, a race huckster, an agitator, a traitor.

That would be more respectful of the real man and what he stood for, at least, than what they’re doing now.

Conservatives who profess their love for Dr. King have created an almost completely fictitious cartoon version of Dr. King in their mind—a Dr. King who loves self-reliance and rugged individualism, a Dr. King who “doesn’t see race,” a Dr. King who was a “lifelong Republican” despite King writing at length about the terrifying racism of the 1964 Goldwater campaign.

How? How do they get away with this? How can they erase a man’s entire body of work—not just reduce him down to one speech, but erase even the context of that speech, erase all but the last few paragraphs of that speech, and extrapolate a totally fake version of him from the phrase “content of their character”?

Well… this is the kind of thing that we do. We like our racial icons as kind of benevolent Santa Claus figures who reaffirm that we’re being good, non-racist people by just continuing to do what we’re doing and there’s nothing deeply fucked about our system that needs fixing.

Remember the whole world coming together to hold hands and sing at Nelson Mandela’s funeral? Everyone carefully developed amnesia about how when Mandela was in prison the Reagan and Thatcher conservatives advocated letting him stay there because he was a dangerous communist terrorist.

The Freedom Charter that Mandela helped write, the black South African declaration of independence that now sits memorialized in Cape Town? It’s a good thing people don’t usually actually read it, because it calls for the massive redistribution of land and the nationalization of all major industries, in order to reverse the effects of 50 years of apartheid on the economy. Fortunately for the forces of capitalism, an older, more cautious Mandela caved to the U.S. and didn’t enforce any of those provisions upon taking power in 1994, ensuring the South African economy remained basically the same, the vast majority of black South Africans remained desperately poor and apartheid continues by another name.

The list goes on and on. I bet your AP U.S. History textbooks told you about Tom Paine’s Revolutionary War pamphlet Common Sense but not his post-Revolution pamphlet Agrarian Justice—the one proposing land redistribution and, yes, a guaranteed minimum income. (The more things change…) I bet after you watched The Miracle Worker no one told you the adorable little deafblind girl grew up to be an outspoken, fiery feminist, socialist and peace activist.

Our culture is really, really good at sucking all the life out of heroes and turning them into hollow plaster saints. Radicals, revolutionaries, who rose to fame because they spoke words that cut to the heart of the cruelties and contradictions in our society, get turned into mute and meaningless icons. Even a figure who is identified solely by his association with rebellion, like Che Guevara, becomes a mere hipster logo, a symbol that vaguely invokes a feeling of edginess with all the history of the Cuban and Bolivian Revolutions lost.

King and Mandela, likewise, became smiling figureheads for the idea that racism used to exist and used to be bad but somehow we all overcame it. That by passing the Civil Rights Act and dismantling apartheid we redeemed ourselves. Everything else those men were about, every other social ill and hypocrisy they called out, gets shoved down the memory hole.

It’s repugnant. It’s despicable. It’s more respectful to a man to call him a terrorist and throw him in jail than, after he’s dead, to spit on everything he stood for and recruit his memory to your cause.

I’d like it if we could actually do justice to King’s memory—if even a small fraction of the people who claim to revere his memory read Where Do We Go From Here, or Why We Can’t Wait, or Letter From Birmingham Jail, or at the very least, for God’s sake, the whole text of the “I Have A Dream” speech instead of just the last part.

I’d like it if people took King as he was—the democratic socialist, anti-war activist, unapologetic demagogue and canny political operative, and, yes, philanderer and adulterer—and either lauded him or rejected him for who he was.

But if that’s too much work for you, if you’d rather not take the effort to learn the first damn thing about the man and would prefer to just take your day off, buy mattresses and furniture on sale, and maybe tweet about being persecuted by the government or do a rap video about being a Young Republican.

Shut up about Dr. King. Let his message stay dead and buried, if it must, but don’t erect this grotesque cartoon parody version of Dr. King to be your mouthpiece.

Whatever ignorant thing you have to say about the hunky-dory state of race relations in America today, leave the dead man out of it. He’s suffered enough.