Maybe it’s the 24-hour media cycle, the omnipresence of social media, the rhetoric of the current administration or some combination of those, but according to numerous columns penned in the fall of 2018 for publications ranging from The Atlantic to the Washington Post to NPR, many Americans felt that last year was one in which our nation was more divided, polarized and partisan than ever before. In these columns, those writers make desparate, exasperated pleas to save the country, calling for respectability, civility, love and the recognition of everyone’s humanity.
As the calendar rolled over to the new year, Jan. 21, 2019, presented a way to turn over a new leaf in pursuit of a more unified, harmonious America: remembering (some of) the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.
But America — a country in which child poverty rates today are higher than during King’s lifetime, a country where entire groups of people have been legally subordinated from day one through slavery, exclusive immigration policies, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration and deportation and a country from which states seceded to fight for their right to that subordination — was absolutely not more divided in 2018 than ever before. But rather than recognize that on the national holiday honoring King, public officials, politicians, celebrities, agencies and more appealed to the values of a rewritten, palatable, uncontroversial version of King who would remind us that “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
But cherry-picking the words of King, a bold speaker who was jailed for his radical activism over 30 times, to promote peace, civility, and the colorblind, white-beneficial status quo, is more than dishonest and insulting to his work and legacy. It’s racist.
And as Cornel West, a Harvard University professor, wrote in an opinion column for The Guardian, “If King were alive today, his words would threaten most of those who now sing his praises.”
Just days after the start of the new year, I paid my first visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial located in West Potomac Park next to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It was dusk, the air was quiet, and King’s likeness rising “out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” overlooking the Tidal Basin and flanked on either side by walls of the leader’s famous quotes, was a powerful and breathtaking tribute that I felt honored to witness.
In a number of my classes, my professors have challenged the popular whitewashing of King’s legacy, assigning “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in syllabi and pointing out the way our intentional misremembering of King has allowed him to be a tool of propaganda, a radical leader reshaped into a martyr of the status quo. So I’d tried to enter the space with a critical eye in an attempt to honor who King really was. As I walked around the 450-foot crescent shaped inscription wall, reading King’s most quoted lines from his 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama to his final sermon delivered in 1968 at the National Cathedral just four days before his assassination, I was actually initially impressed. The engravings seem to paint a fuller picture of King than the colorblind one this country usually celebrates. The quotes proclaim King’s opposition of the Vietnam War, his definition of peace as “the presence of justice” rather than “merely the absense of tension” and his belief “that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
Maybe this monument had actually gotten it right, and wasn’t just depicting the King with which white D.C. would be comfortable. After all, when the monument opened in 2011, New York Times art critic Edward Rothstein criticized its depiction of King as overly “stern,” asking, “Is this the Dr. King of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech?” to which King’s son responded that “if my father was not confrontational, given what he was facing at the time, what else could he be?”
But then one quote in particular stood out to me: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
I recognized it, because I’d learned in a previous class that it’s been entirely taken out of context. King didn’t believe that time was the answer to racial progress or that things were naturally getting better and would naturally continue to become better as we “improved” — he believed in activism. And now I have to wonder, what other quotes on that D.C. monument are oversimplified?
On Jan. 21, a viral Facebook post, written and published by user Brianna Westover stated it simply: “He was hated. He was a radical. He was a leftist. He believed in universal healthcare. He believed in eradicating poverty. He was anti-war. He acknowledged that those taking more violent or chaotic methods of protest were valid. He blocked traffic on major roads. He was considered one of the most dangerous men by the FBI. He was killed for these ideals.”