We see it every year. People who’ve never read Martin Luther King Jr. or listened to any of his sermons or speeches in their entirety remind us of the Dr. King they like to remember. Despite all the reminders of just how seemingly radical his ideas still are, far too many in the U.S. choose to ignore his ideologies, his faith, and his beliefs. They ignore his efforts toward a just and equitable society for all. Yes, all. Including immigrants and poor white people who are collateral damage to the effects of white power structures.
It’s a wonder why poor white people align themselves with the caste system that allows white power brokers dominion of non-white populations — alongside their communities too. To look back at Dr. King’s life isn’t about looking back at the parts people can use against the Black community when speaking up against injustice. It’s about looking back at his legacy and standing beside oppressed populations to achieve social equity and equal justice.
King spoke at length about Black personhood and civil rights for the Black community. Many of his speeches were focused on the Black community. That’s what made him such an important figure to some and hated by others. Many Americans learned about the realities for Black people for the first time because of him. Those white people took what they learned and helped push for change. Others, however, took his words as an attack on whiteness. On America. On something dubious they call “white culture” (whatever that is).
But, as King spoke on the trials and tribulations of the Black community, what was foretold (and purposely ignored), were the positive impacts he would have on many communities.
The Anti-King Propaganda Machine
There are many aspects to the efforts behind erasing King’s legacy. Of the more prominent tools is misrepresenting what he stood for. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Using selected quotes from King’s speeches, particularly his “I Have a Dream” speech, became a tool to lull the population at large into complacency. This spectacle, of sorts, falls in line with the whitewashing of U.S. history in an attempt to disguise the ugliest parts of it as something nobler than it is.
In the same vein, nearly all context is removed from King’s speeches and sermons. His writing is seldom read by those who would create their own narrative using only a few of his words. His life, however, was based on more revolutionary ideologies. Dr. King lost confidence in a purely capitalist society early in his life. It was one of the traits hated most by the population at large. In keeping with his faith, his sermons and speeches were anti-capitalist in nature.
In a note to Coretta Scott King in 1952, King argued that “capitalism has outlived its usefulness.” Similarly, in 1953, during a prayer broadcast from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, he said, “in the name and spirit of Jesus [the Church would] work with renewed vigor for a warless world, for a better distribution of wealth, and for a brotherhood that transcends race or color.” King knew that the brotherhood and quest for peace he sought could not be achieved without equality or with conformity or cheap consolations.
Although Dr. King sought to restructure American society, you wouldn’t know that based on the quotes we see leading up to Martin Luther King Day and throughout Black history month. As much as his legacy means to those who admire and learn from the roadmap he planned for society, white power structures have bastardized his image to silence dissent using his words of peace while leaving out all mention of him describing the battle to achieve it.
Whitewashing MLK Day
While society at large has been taught about Dr. King in a way that softens his image, there are holidays and events all over the country designed to minimize MLK Day. Since 1973, Texas has celebrated “Confederate Heroes Day” (previously known as Lee Day beginning in 1931) on the same day as MLK Day. It’s worth noting there are no holidays in the state that honor the heroes of other wars. Only Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee (neither of which were Texans or heroes) are named in the Texas statute.
Other states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee on the same day. Both states have celebrated Lee since the late 1800s and began honoring Dr. King in 1983 in what they refer to as “King-Lee Day”. From 1984 until 2000, Virginia designated the third Monday in January as “Lee-Jackson-King Day”. The state split the holiday into separate days. Lee-Jackson Day was celebrated on the Friday before MLK Day until 2020.
It’s not just the South either. Utah, one of the last states to recognize MLK Day, referred to the holiday as simply “Human Rights Day” until 2000 — the year the state officially recognized Martin Luther King Jr. South Carolina became the last state in the union to declare MLK Day its own holiday. Prior to that, state employees had an option to have a paid holiday on King’s birthday or three separate paid Confederate holidays. Recognition of Dr. King came around the same time the state voted to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse.
New Hampshire and Arizona refer to the holiday as “Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Day.”
Adding other people or text to the day set aside to honor a civil rights hero is an intentional effort to diminish the importance of the day. It represents language akin to dog whistles. In addition to all of this, there are events held by private individuals in public spaces honoring more racist ideals — from the Confederacy to the KKK. Many people still do everything in their power to cast a shadow over Dr. King.
Proving yet again, that the U.S. has a long way to go in terms of race relations.
The Antagonist Magazine is a project made up of journalists, activists, and writers focused on amplifying the stories of marginalized communities. The goal is to educate the public by sharing narratives focused on independent voices. Born of an online community in 2019, our platform operates independently; free of corporate influence. Please consider supporting the work of dozens of writers from various communities.