Every year on the third Monday in the month of January social media is overwhelmed by quotes and tributes to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes about poverty, racial injustice, war, systemic oppression, etc. People arise out of nowhere to fight over the legacy of a man who is credited with leading one of the largest pushes for human rights in the history of the United States. And every third Monday of the month of January, MLK is also made out to be something he is not – a patriot, a capitalist, a faithful husband, a rags-to-riches story, the Black messiah. He was not patriotic (in fact the sermon he was planning on giving before he was assassinated was titled “Why America May Go to Hell”), he was very socialist in his economics, he hired prostitutes whilst away from his wife, he was born to an upper-middle class Black family, and he was no messiah for Black people – at the time most Black people thought he was too soft or unable to relate to their struggles. His popularity did not really come Black people, but from the White media who felt that he was a good “moderate” voice of the Black population – as opposed to other Black leaders who depicted the White populous as the “blue-eyed devil”. In a time where Black people were being dragged out of their houses and strung up naked on trees and left to die after being beaten to a pulp – MLK dared to say from the comfort of his home in the suburbs, that all the Black community needed to do was love White people, then they would stop lynching. While I agree with MLK, violence is never the answer, his distance from the community experiencing violence made him less reputable among the Black community facing such oppression. Yet, despite his physical distance, he was (and still is) claimed by the Black community because of his accomplishments in the civil rights movement towards racial equality.
I woke up on Monday and saw this status on my Facebook newsfeed: “This MLK Day, realize that what we’re celebrating has nothing to do with race. We’re celebrating a godly man who was dedicated to a godly cause.” (Emphasis added) I am trying to see how this was meant to be taken. How our celebrating a civil rights leader has nothing to do with race – but I am not able to fathom it. I know this person did not mean to intentionally make it seem as if the struggle for racial equality is not worth noticing or addressing, I know this person did not mean to trivialize MLK’s racial legacy or erase his “Black-ness”. This author of this status obviously had respect for what MLK did for Blacks and other racial minorities, a “godly cause” – although this person did not mean to offend me, he/she did. The godly cause MLK fought for was racial equality – it had everything to do with race, whether or not one wants to address race, if one is to talk about MLK race is what must be spoken about especially at a time when racial division is rising not falling. Schools and churches are more segregated than ever before, and though we have one Black president, the amount of representation in Congress for Black people is not at all representative of the actual Black population in this US (the same can be said for all racial groups and women and LGBT persons).
MLK’s legacy has everything to do with race, but we as Americans have allowed ourselves to become so disillusioned with working through difficult issues we try and sweep them under the carpet and ignore them saying trite things like “I don’t see race”, “I’m colorblind” and the like. It is not possible to not see race, when everything I try to buy that is “flesh-colored” does not even come near to matching my skin-tone, when every shampoo commercial on mainstream media only focuses on long thick straight hair; it is easy to “not see race” because other races are not present there. So we allow society to collectively ignore the plight of racial minorities, and continue the perpetuation of racism under the guise of colorblindness. The problem with racism is that it only harms the minority groups, not the group in power. For purposes of clarity racism is defined as: “a highly organized system of ‘race’-based group privilege that operates at every level of society and is held together by a sophisticated ideology of color/’race’ supremacy (taken from Sociologists Noël A. Cazenave and Darlene Alvarez Maddern)”.
As long as we continue to refuse to talk about racism one group in our nation will continue to reap benefits of oppression while ignoring the groups being oppressed. Said group will continue to murder unarmed teens in cold blood and claim, “It wasn’t about race” – we will continue to questions why there is such racial division in our nation despite our token Black president. We will wonder how a person with one Black friend could be perpetuating racism. The memory of MLK has been severely misconstrued, separated from the actual man. He was not perfect but I would go so far as to say he was godly; he was not the Black messiah but I would argue he helped Blacks in a way no other person has; his legacy has everything to do with race – but he was not a one-dimensional character. I pray we will not allow the MLK holiday to eliminate the person behind the actions or to tame the radical activist that challenged a nation complacent with poll taxes, separate water fountains, and even with lynching – may we not allow such carelessness surrounding the issue of racism to continue to thrive in the land of the free.