On MLK Day

Dear White People:

On the day that we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy, let’s have a little chat, shall we? One white person to another. There’s some shit about racism that needs to be talked about here. Specifically, your collective knee-jerk reflexive need to whitewash and disproportionately celebrate King’s embrace of passive resistance and non-violence. The man had an awful lot more to say that gets ignored in the process.

Yes, I get it. The high-level abstract impression left by the “I Have a Dream” speech makes dealing with racism easier. “Oh look, there is a Black man who says we all need to be peaceful and just get along. Then racism will go away!” You do realize that he got murdered by a racist for suggesting that, don’t you?  Stop making the the “I Have a Dream” speech your touchstone for you understanding and celebration of the man. That speech, which is over 55 years old, is about an ideal world that is merely marginally closer to reality than it was then. In fact, it behooves us to instead focus a little harder on a passage from an earlier, 1956 speech, “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious.” He makes it abundantly clear what a peaceful society with justice entails:

“I don’t want peace:

“If peace means accepting second class citizenship I don’t want it.

“If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.

“If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.

“If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.

“In a passive non-violent manner we must revolt against this peace.”

Yes, he ends with non-violence, but also take notice the word “revolt.” So long as the peace is without justice, it cannot stand. Maybe, the fact that Black people are still needing to fight for the full array of human dignities and rights that white Americans absentmindedly take for granted is a clue that something is still horribly wrong. Beyond that, It’s kind of difficult to continue spreading a message about peace and love when you’ve been shot dead for it, right? Before he was murdered in cold blood by a white person (never forget that), his views on protesting were already undergoing a noticeable change.

Admit it, if all you do is focus on his earlier writing and speeches, then it is rather difficult to reconcile them with much of what he started to say before being shot. In a speech he delivered to the American Psychology Association’s annual convention in September 1967, he stated:

“Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena… They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting which is their principal feature serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse. Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking.”

See, there’s an illustration of the problem with continuing to insist that protests should remain peaceful. Peaceful protests only work against a system that has a guilty conscience; one that can be shamed into doing the right thing when historically speaking it has been anything but fair and just. This is a huge reason why Gandhi was successful in helping to bring India its independence from Great Britain. The British, having just won a war in which the enemy was the most efficient racist killing machine in human history, just didn’t have the stomach for turning around and brutally repressing another race of people. There’s an alternate history short story, “The Last Article” by Harry Turtledove, that underscores this point. In it, the Nazis win World War II and Gandhi is forced to deal with them rather than the British. It should be clear, even without reading, that Gandhi’s techniques would not have worked against them.

Oh, let’s not forget that Gandhi also ended up murdered in cold blood (albeit for different reasons.)

But, I digress slightly.

What would have happened if Martin Luther King, Jr. hadn’t been murdered, and he had the opportunity to grow older? I guarantee you his views and feelings would have continued to evolve and change. That is what happens to any self-aware person who is willing to let their beliefs be challenged and change them when confronted with facts that do not support what they previously espoused. I will not attempt to theorize they direction they would have taken, but I am certain that King’s would have changed and evolved. I sincerely believe this because of my own growth and change as an individual.

See, during college I wrote extensively in the Commentary section of the student newspaper. In fact, I was the editor of that section for two years. During that time, I wrote nearly 100 opinion pieces, and there is stuff in there that makes me cringe thinking that I wrote it. I know that at times I was sexist, racist, and well… just painfully ignorant. However, I also did try my best to listen and think hard about what feedback I received. Change and growth didn’t happen as quickly as it could and should have — I readily admit to a painfully stubborn streak that continues to challenge me — but over time I came to understand and appreciate what was wrong about those beliefs and how I had to change them. I think it’s obvious that Martin Luther King Jr. was that kind of self-aware person.

So, white people, please stop focusing on the feel-good parts of his sermons, speeches, and interviews. It’s a bad fucking look — especially if you haven’t truly bothered to read the writings of numerous other black writers, both fiction and non-fiction. No one with a truly well-considered opinion relies solely on the work of one person or just one perspective. When you do that, all you are doing is reinforcing and pushing your own beliefs, without any true thought or reflection. It’s like saying that Alex Jones speaks for white people. Well, I’m sure he speaking for way too many of you, but I hope you get the point.

Do better.

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