On this national holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. many of us nationwide took to the streets in “reclaim MLK” protests. Why a need to reclaim the legacy of Dr.King? Part of it has to do with that speech.
(Photo from Sean Elias)
You know the one. The “I got a dream speech,” as someone referred to it recently. The speech that everyone half-remembers and selectively quotes every January. Based on a collective quoting-out-of-context from that speech, King has been elevated to a patriotic mascot praising America’s relentless and inevitable progress on racism. In his book, The Speech, Gary Younge lays out the story behind the speech which was, in fact, a searing indictment of American racism. Younge describes our misremembering this way:
“Half a century after the March on Washington and the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, the event has been neatly folded into America’s patriotic mythology. Relatively few people know or recall that the Kennedy administration tried to get organizers to call it off; that the FBI tried to dissuade people from coming; that racist senators tried to discredit the leaders; that twice as many Americans had an unfavorable view of the march as a favorable one. Instead, it is hailed not as a dramatic moment of mass, multiracial dissidence, but as a jamboree in Benetton Technicolor, exemplifying the nation’s unrelenting progress toward its founding ideals.”
People forget, too, that King was very nearly a social pariah among most white Americans. In 1966, twice as many Americans had an unfavorable opinion of him as a favorable one.
Much less frequently quoted on this holiday is MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he writes that:
“the great stumbling block in [the] stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
Or, his 1967 speech at Riverside Church, in which he responds to the question “What about Vietnam?” by saying:
“I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
Today, we have certainly made symbolic progress as a nation, and even some material progress. We have a black president of the US, who can say and do a very little to address racism. And, Oprah Winfrey is so fabulously wealthy she has an amphitheater in her backyard in which she can host a gospel brunch, because that was Dr. King’s dream. Or, so she says.
At the same time, we live in a nation in which more black people have been killed by police than were lynched during Jim Crow. Despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act, 1 in 13 African Americans are blocked from voting due to systematic disenfranchisement. And, the carceral machinery churns up black lives at a prodigious rate. Sixty years after Brown vs. the Board of Education, our schools are more racially segregated than ever. The black-white wealth gap has, at the end of 2014, reached at 24-year high.
(Photo by Marina Ortiz, East Harlem Preservation)
So, when people to the streets and to Twitter to #reclaimMLK, it was to remind us all of the radical tradition of a Dr. King who called out the stumbling block of white moderates who value order more than justice and the violence of our own government.