January 16, 2023
I’m not old enough to remember how badly white people hated Martin Luther King, Jr. during his lifetime. How they protested, en masse, his calls for racial integration and an end to Jim Crow. How they called him a communist and a terrorists. How they jailed him and threatened the life of he and his family on a daily basis. I was four years old that day in April when a white person put a bullet in his face on a Memphis hotel balcony. I only learned about that later in my white-authored schoolbooks.
But I am old enough to remember how white people fought tooth and nail to stop Dr. King’s a birthday being made a federal holiday. I was 19 when Ronald Reagan, who spent much of his presidency undoing the civil rights legislation that King fought for, bit his tongue and signed the holiday into law (after 90 white congressmen and 22 white senators voted against it). In my Georgia town, white people began calling the holiday, “Martin Luther Coon Day.”
So I’m leery of how so many white people now embrace Dr. King while ignoring his core messages. As a kid from a southern Klan town, I’m the last person to say that white people’s hearts cannot be changed. I’ve seen the most vicious racists transform into the most dedicated anti-racist activists. And I’ve seen that more than once. But if feels like every MLK Day we get the sanitized version of the black radical who white America despised.
The perfect example is the focus on one passage in King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that you will hear repeated on Fox News every January.
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.
Taken out of context this sentence to gets white people off the hook. “Hey, I’ll just judge black people by the content of their character and we can be done with this whole race thing.” This lame assertion denies some very important facts.
- Doctor King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as pretty much everything he said, makes the exact opposite case. He was saying we will never get to the colorblind world UNTIL we deal with the engrained problems of structural and cultural racism. “White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society,” King later wrote. He had a dream of how things could be but we weren’t there in 1963 and we’re still not there in 2023. We have to do the work first. And the work is hard and the push back against the work is mighty. It’s just not from powerful white nationalists like Donald Trump. The pushback is felt in every white person that has ever said, “I’m not a racist, but…”
- “I was raised not to see color” is a lie. We live in a white supremacist society that sees white as “good” and “normal” and sees black as “bad” and “other.” We internalize these message throughout our entire lives. All of us internalize white supremacy. Numerous studies have shown that black kindergartners have already learned to value whiteness over blackness. Even if you are not a rabid Klansman, we know these messages about race are baked into your subconscious as implicit bias. Even the most woke-ass liberal notices the black guy standing by their car. Research shows again and again that implicit bias is a factor in why black and brown kids are disciplined more by teachers and why people of color are more likely to be shot by police. So when a white person says they are “colorblind,” they might think they are but they most definitely are not. We are trained to see color from the get-go.
- Black and brown people do not have the privilege of being colorblind. Seeing color is a matter of survival. If I’m an African-American man and I walk into a bank full of white people, I may have to adjust my behavior, appearance, and demeanor so the white people a) don’t think I’m there to rob the place, and b) maybe give me the same service that white people get. I had a black student who always wore a suit and tie to class everyday and when I commented on his dapper style he said, “I just got tired of everyone assuming I was here on an athletic scholarship.”
- The content of one’s character is most certainly shaped one’s environment and upbringing. If I’m facing the daily sledgehammer of racism and oppression, that’s gonna play a role in my character. Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of the seminal text, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, refers to the “ever present anger” black people experience because of the constant othering. If you are going to judge someone by their character, you better understand the forces that helped create it.
In Martin King’s famous “I Have Dream” speech, in a section rarely quoted by contemporary white people, he says:
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.
Last year there were over a thousand people killed by the police. African-Americans, who make up roughly 12 percent of the population represented 27 percent of those who were killed. George Floyd and every black police victim that has followed speak to the unspeakable horrors that persist. So why should those clamoring for basic human rights be satisfied?
Simplified history-telling has often portrayed white people as facing a perilous question sixty years ago; Either go with the kinder assimilationist rhetoric of Reverend King or face the revolutionary rage of Minister Malcolm X. King or X was a false choice. Underlying MLK’s rainbow vision was a fairly radical call for a power shift in America. The “I Have a Dream” line, “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” was as much about the tables in the backrooms of congress and corporations as it was the tables in diners. Toward the end of his life, King’s message was much more explicitly class-based and anti-war (which must’ve made J.Edgar Hoover’s blood boil).
The white cherry-picking of MLK sentences from long, complex speeches and essays and the casting him as a “good negro” (in contrast to all the “bad” ones) erases the core message of King’s life. Yeah, there as been a little progress, but we ain’t there yet. We still have to explain to white people why black lives matter, because the facts on the table show they still don’t. Until there is fundamental structural change and black people, and other marginalized folks, have the EXACT same access to economic, political, and cultural power, we can dream about it, but we ain’t there yet.
So share the dream. It’s a good one. But action is required. That’s what Martin asked of us.