When racial conflict rears its head high enough for mainstream media to notice, inevitably comes the invocation of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King.
America saw and heard the words of Dr. King in the mouths of TV pundits, in their social media timelines as memes, at church on Sunday, and in newspaper op-eds. Some invoke Dr. King because they are genuinely inspired by his words, and hope others will be too. Other uses are more complicated, and problematic.
It is true, Dr. King is an inspiration. It’s also true that he is dead, and the plague of white supremacy and anti-blackness killed him, conditions America still suffers from today; racism may look differently than in the King era but it is still as dangerous.
White Americans tend to forget the detailed brushstrokes on the tapestry of history, and instead like to blur their own gaze and memory, trading realism for cherry-picked abstractionism. When they apply this opaque lens to the legacy of Dr. King, the assassinated leader becomes part motivational speaker, part idol. When they inject this perception into the social discussion on a given issue, they typically do so in two ways.
First, Dr. King is cast as infallible. He was a husband, a preacher, and a leader. He was a good black man who took care of his family and was selfless and never raised his voice unless he was preaching the word of god.
Second, Dr. King is cast as the ultimate peace warrior. He is credited for achieving the impossible through what society deems as the highest and most pristine moral authority; non-violence. In the face of hundreds of years of brutality, Dr. King proved the impossible could be obtained by taking the moral high ground.
The problem is, he didn’t. Non-violence was a strategic decision. Black and other freedom fighters knew white-controlled media would often mis-characterize them, in the tradition of re-enforcing racist, anti-black stereotypes. They didn’t have the resources to fight that battle and win. They could only neutralize it to the best of their ability. They didn’t “rise above” violence, they counteracted it.
But this wasn’t just about images in the media. Violence begets violence, and white violence in America exists on a level of brutality many people simply cannot fathom. In Jim Crow states people didn’t just have to contend with white national militias or the KKK but the overt use of police violence against people fighting for their rights, non-violently or otherwise.
As a result, the images we have of the historic civil rights movement capture violence that is one-sided; racists against black people. Law enforcement against black people. Those images cut the conscience of a nation and bruised its worldwide persona, and helped turned the public tide towards desegregation and equal protection and access laws.
The movement Dr. King led didn’t win because it was non-violent, it won because it created political power. It used collective economic power and constant negotiation. It used the ballot. It used grit, not dreams.
Subconsciously (or consciously), modern America has always feared a violent uprising of black people to fight injustice. What would happen if black people armed themselves, having reached a critical-mass tipping point, fed up with the racist subjugation reinforced by white supremacist people, policy and law? Terrifying, right?
And so they point black people to the example of Dr. King, non-violence, and a dream. If Dr. King, their favorite civil rights icon could do it, then everyone should, and to do otherwise is to intentionally sully the memory or legacy of King.
But black people aren’t monolithic in how they choose to fight for liberation, and despite the perception that all were somehow united under a few men, they weren’t then, and are not now. In fact, the culture has swung away from appointed or anointed black “community leaders” and spokespeople, and towards the individual; there are trends and shared experiences, but we are not all one in the same.
An overwhelming number of people don’t fall on the words of Dr. King for inspiration the way many non-black people do. Instead, for us, those words are a trigger of grief and a painful reminder of what white violence is capable of; it killed King, X, Evers, and too many others.
White violence showed out in Charlottesville, shocking the world. But it shows up daily in board rooms, class rooms, stock rooms, and court rooms. At its worst it isn’t waving a flag, it’s smiling and shaking your hand, careful to not identify itself.
Dr. King’s tactics for achieving black liberation are not the road map to fight against what black people face in America today, or how they defend themselves against white violence. In all of its forms.