Remembering the Whole Legacy of Dr. King

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated 50 years ago last Wednesday. Many people spent the week mourning his death and celebrating his life and his work. Or, for too many, celebrate a small part of it. It is almost like we’ve forgotten that he died in the service of his mission, not the completion of it.

An Icon, polished and sanitized

Across the US, people will be celebrating an idealized version of Dr. King’s message and mission, stripped of those elements that modern civil-rights leaders would be¬†criticized for utilizing and affirming. In his lifetime, Dr. King was a radical and an agitator, and he knew it. His behavior constantly bordered on the criminal, and crossed over on many occasions where he felt the law was unjust or simply an obstacle to real equality. He blocked traffic. He went where he was unwelcome, even forbidden. He led boycotts, strikes, and business disruptions.

Dr. King was never violent, but that is often held up in ways that make us blind to how disruptive his work was to business and daily life of those whose attention he sought to hold.

There are plenty of places to read what Dr. King had to say about criminal behavior; he was not at all ambiguous in saying that some laws may have to be broken for a person of principle to live up to their principles. His views on violence are often sanitized such that the actual message is completely lost, though. He was dedicated to a non-violent course of action, but the reasons were not as simple as “because violence is wrong.”

In fact, he said he opposed riots not just because he was a peaceful man, but because “a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt.”

Confronting White Fear and Guilt

He didn’t want to validate either the fears of the majority or the violence he knew would be used against him and his movement; didn’t want to justify the violence that was already being used against his community. He believed that any violent resistance on his part would alleviate whatever guilt White America was feeling witnessing these beatings. He needed that guilt, because there was little sympathy. White people didn’t feel like this was their problem to fix. By making them see Black people beaten by authority while not resisting, much less fighting back, he hoped they would have to face the violence that was built into systems of American authority. His non-violence was political as much as it was philosophical or theological.

More importantly, though, he asked White America to take responsibility for the violence they had been inflicting for centuries on African-Americans. He wrote, “It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society… These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

The Language of the Unheard

Are we listening yet? I don’t think we are if we ignore that Dr. King demanded equality of opportunity, not just treatment. That he cared about social justice and not just legal equality. We are not hearing him if we aren’t addressing oppression at all levels, from profiling by law enforcement to profiling by hiring managers to profiling by store security. The week he was murdered he was in Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers; he was there to amplify their call for better pay, better working conditions, and more diversity in promotions. He said, repeatedly, that the struggle for racial justice and the struggle for economic justice were linked and inseparable; we needed to tackle both if we were ever to solve either. He was intersectional before the term had been coined. Not perfectly so, but he was ahead of his time.

Dr. King spent a lot of time and energy on organizing and bringing people together. His memory has been often distorted to tear people apart. Misremembering his real message is an affront to his legacy and a move against the real, positive justice he called for. We must not seek the negative peace of conformity and “absence of tension” as Dr. King put it, but the Positive peace of real justice that will require change and disruption of the status quo.

Dr. King was a brilliant political activist. Listen to his views on politics as well as his theology. His hopes and plans for building a better future tell us are the best way to honor him. Only listening to his dream will never actually get us to the other side of that mountain.

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