The “I Have a Dream” narrative built for Dr. Martin Luther King doesn’t do justice to his complex political thought.
This past Monday, like it does every year, the nation celebrated the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. A few highlights: St. Louisans watched a white male anchorman substitute a racial slur when stating King’s last name; we read in horror a letter written from the FBI and dropped on King’s doorstep demanding that he commit suicide or have his extramarital affairs exposed; and finally, perhaps most disturbing, Vice President Mike “Hoosiers-Don’t-Believe-in-Discrimination” Pence compared the legendary black civil rights leader to President Donald “Build-a-Wall-to-Keep-the-Brown-People-Out” Trump.
Although white Twitter came to the rescue to nobly remind us that America is still racist, I dreaded wading through the slog of white people posting King’s quotes. But I did, because, like every millennial, I have a social media addiction. However, I was also genuinely curious. Will King once again be portrayed as the civil rights leader that Republicans love to tout as their model revolutionary? (Spoiler: the answer was yes).
King’s dream for an equal America, finally free of racial and social divides that limit the possibilities of millions of people based on the color of skin, has not come to pass in 2019. His failed promise “to reach the mountaintop,” as quoted in a 1968 speech, continues to haunt the American story, and while liberals still fight to expand representation in media and politics, many are still frustrated by the perversion of King’s words into a milder, white-friendly rhetoric.
The truth behind King is, like everyone else, more complicated than presented in your American history textbook. The man was a genius and adapted nonviolent political thought into a mass movement to upend the morally repugnant Jim Crow era in the American South. In addition, King possessed character flaws: he, to his own self-professed mental detriment, cheated on his wife and was notoriously quick to anger. This is normally brushed aside in the conventional recasting of Martin Luther King Jr. He has been transformed, at least according to the Republican Party, into a leader that supposedly ended racism in America and brought everyone together.
The civil rights leader also espoused ideas less than suitable to the party that plunged the country into the two greatest economic recessions of the past two centuries and shut the government down for over a month over a border wall. He noted that he subscribed to socialism over capitalism, arguing that America needed a better economic system to distribute wealth. This was backed by his Poor People’s March, attempting to inspire another march on Washington to guarantee “an economic bill of rights.” He opposed the Vietnam War as a neocolonial, capitalistic venture into another land of non-white people.
However, most significant, a week before his death, he recalled his own “I Have a Dream” speech as too naive. Claiming that white America would never fully accept blacks into the American Dream, he felt that he needed to step up his efforts. What that meant, America will never know; his assassination robbed us of this.
Martin Luther King Jr. has been pacified into a mockery of his ideas. Instead, we have adapted him into a bludgeoning tool against people of color and women who demand equality through nonviolent protest. Republicans, like Tomi Lahren in the past week, have distorted the man to create a fictionalized image of King as a leader that protested “the right way.”
King’s methods, while nonviolent, were intentionally disruptive. He knew that by upsetting Southern life, he could draw attention and force confrontation. The notion of protesting as anything other than disruptive is not only neoliberal paternalism, but also counterintuitive to what protest attempts to do. It seeks to affect the status quo through refusing to adhere to normative behavior.
The figure of Martin Luther King Jr. has been disgustingly transformed into a caricature of his true ideas. Understanding his fundamental values, his flaws and his dreams for this nation help us understand the type of equality he sought. He thought capitalism only hindered black growth out of the depths of American poverty and thought that only through nonviolent resistance could true change be realized. Our attempts to co-opt him into a “model citizen” only empower racism. If we choose to believe in King, we should believe in all of him, not just the parts chosen by the people he sought to lift out of their hatred and ignorance.