Today is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—kids are out of school, a lot of folks with office jobs are enjoying an extended weekend, and some retailers are actually trying to run MLK Day sales (please don’t). There is a smattering of events commemorating Dr. King all across the nation. Some organizations and government offices have been encouraging us to use the observance of Dr. King’s birthday as a day of service. All across social media, folks are sharing quotes from Dr. King, praising him for his role in unifying the country or arguing that he would support this position, or that, or the other.
So few of the ways in which we publicly celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day actually pay tribute to Dr. King as he was. There is nary a mention of his radical politics and—boy, howdy!—do folks like to gloss over his arrest record. Because it is more palatable, Dr. King’s legacy has been simplified and sanitized. Rather than participate in earnest discussions about civil disobedience, we zero in on the “civil” part. Instead of engaging with the idea of nonviolent disruption, we glorify the nonviolence while disregarding the fact that he—as a part of the Civil Rights Movement—used disruption as protest, as an appeal for justice. In place of acknowledging the complicated man who told us that we “have a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” we opt for a two-dimensional character who had a dream and can be neatly packed into a page or two of a high school history text book.
It took until college before I started hearing about Dr. King’s commitment to economic justice and that he was working with the Poor People’s Campaign to put together what would have been, at the time, the largest demonstration D.C. had ever seen when he was murdered. It wasn’t until graduate school that I learned that his dedication to principles of nonviolence wasn’t just because he believed it was the right thing to do, but because it was a thought-out strategy. Similarly, I’d not learned until graduate school that Dr. King had been under heavy government surveillance; that he was considered a threat to national security; that when the FBI’s attempts to discredit him fell short, they sent a really heinous letter along with evidence of his extramarital affairs to his house. It was Coretta Scott King, his wife, who opened that package.
Sadly, we’ve taken a man—just as human and flawed as the rest of us—who stood firm against the Vietnam War, against militarism, against economic exploitation, against voter disenfranchisement, against segregation and erased the radical political and economic ideology, the humanity, the flaws, the contradictions, and so many of the actual facts of his life and activism. This is how some folks, with policy ideas that stand in direction opposition to King’s aims, get away with co-opting the words of Dr. King—unless you go out of your way to learn about him, he exists largely without context or nuance in the cultural imaginary. He has been mythologized as a great unifier, as this lone hero of the Civil Rights Movement who convinced the nation to desegregate with his peaceful and loving manner. This is about as accurate as the field drug tests used in Harris County, Texas.
Dr. King discussing just laws and civil disobedience on Meet the Press
Martin Luther King, Jr. was, as far as the government and the “law and order” crowd were concerned, a criminal. He was jailed twenty-nine times over the course of ten years of civil disobedience: he and thousands of other Civil Rights activists routinely, nonviolently disrupted public and commercial spaces. And he was far from being the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. People hated him. That hatred murdered him—for all of the nonviolence that folks these days like to play lip service to, his resistance was so hated that he was shot down on a motel balcony in Memphis. He was only 39 years old.
He wasn’t a saint. He was a preacher and the son of a preacher. He was academically gifted. He was a husband and a father. He smoked. He was an activist. He wasn’t faithful to his wife. He was maligned by the media and by his own government. He might have plagiarized a few passages in his dissertation. He wasn’t terribly progressive when it came to gender equity or LGBTQ rights—though, this hardly occurred in a vacuum, – we are talking about the 1950s and ‘60s, after all. He championed the idea of a radical restructuring of economic and political power. He drew attention to issues—like the impact of warfare on the poor and the practice of redlining—that even now we try to ignore.
Dr. King, excerpt of “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam”
His legacy is far more than the “race blind” version of his “I Have a Dream” speech that so many folks seem keen to imagine. He was a hero to many. He was human, for all the trials and triumphs that entails. He was a radical dedicated to resisting oppression and the social uplift of those trying to survive the burden of being oppressed. That is the Dr. King I plan to celebrate today and draw inspiration from every day.