Letting Go: On Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Normally Adam posts something in recognition of MLK day. In the past he’s linked to his remarks from his radical work often covered over in today’s official celebrations or to the remarks in Letter from a Birmingham Jail concerning the threat of the white moderate. Remarks often repressed in white consciousness even as they celebrate the supposed victory that MLK lead the nation towards. On today’s MLK day I invite you to read Chris Lebron’s piece in the NYT: “What, to the Black American, Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?“.

Many on my various social media timelines have shared this powerful line, “I want to say there is also some distance between black and white Americans today, between “you” and “I,” as it were, and that this day has increasingly become “yours,” not mine.” The sorrow at the ways in which white Americans have co-opted MLK, and this day in particular, as a symbol of a job already done is a sorrow brought on in part by the way it erases the responsibility of white Americans to either answer the call of MLK and other radical Black leaders or be honest about their apathy and hatred for their Black neighbors. As he goes on to write, “While he indeed fought for the security of a full schedule of rights for black Americans, he was in fact fighting for something greater and more difficult to articulate — the hope that white Americans could extend a hand of brotherly and sisterly love to blacks.” As whites tarnish MLK’s legacy through ad campaigns or as a figure of respectability politics, then they continue not in the tradition of MLK (as they may fantasize they are), but of Bull Connor and George Wallace. Only now they–a “we” for some of us–are laden with artifacts of Black culture they use as new modes of repression. Repression both of Black demands for justice (“MLK was peaceful, but you’re out here blocking shoppers!”) and their own repression of the shame of being white (“MLK’s dream is fulfilled today because I don’t see race!”).

Today is a day to celebrate one of many important Black leaders. But anytime the same state and culture invites you to worship a human being they tried to kill, we should be suspicious of the ways they want us to remember. Many Black americans already know this and it is something that white Americans, including myself, need to learn from them. Whites need to let go of the fantasy of Martin Luther King Jr. if they are going to be part of his being reclaimed.

3 Responses to “Letting Go: On Martin Luther King Jr. Day”

  1. Ben Says:

    Thanks for the link and the comments. Lebron seems to be riffing here on Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro”, still a radical text in my book. See, for example: “This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?” For my money though, here’s the most damning part from FD: “My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”

  2. An Especially Worthy Entry in Our Ongoing Series of Wednesday Links | Gerry Canavan Says:

    […] * Read the letter the FBI sent MLK to try to convince him to kill himself. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Stint as an Advice Columnist for Ebony Magazine. Happy Robert E. Lee Day! …anytime the same state and culture invites you to worship a human being they tried to kill, w… […]


Comments are closed.