Toward the end of his life Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. grew increasingly disenchanted with the project of racial integration as a means of securing social, political, and economic justice for African Americans. Echoing the sentiments of Ella Baker and Malcolm X, both of whom radically called into question prevailing ideas about what America was and could be, King became deeply concerned that Black Americans were “integrating into a burning house.”
The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday, like all holidays, is not merely concerned with uncritical commemoration but collective memory itself. How we, as a highly diverse nation, recount our past(s) informs the ways in which we understand our contemporary moment. Undoubtedly, it is dumbfounding to consider the great divide between what King, and the movement which propelled him, actually called for and the way he and that movement are portrayed today.
What had been a radical movement for systemic change has now been depoliticized and thereby reduced to casual volunteerism. Schools and civic service organizations, like Americorps and City Year, encourage (and in some cases require) students and employees to volunteer their time during the holiday as not a “day off” but a “day on.” Few would argue against the notion that cleaning rubbish from the neglected streets of economically exploited communities of color is a good thing. Certainly facilitating art projects at a local community center with children of color is affirming enough. But these kind of photo-op-styled civic engagements, however gratifying, in no way capture the intent or aspirations of African Americans who lived and died fighting to create a nation free of institutionalized white supremacy.
If we are to celebrate the real King, we must evade the temptation to uncritically consume popular narratives delivered to an American audience each year on this holiday. These popular portrayals actually invite us to mis-remember King. The process of deep misremembering is captured in the words of the late prominent Haitian scholar, Michel-Rolph Trouillot:
[Most Americans] learn their first history lessons through media that have not been subjected to the standards set by peer reviews, university presses, or doctoral committees. Long before average citizens read the historians who set the standards of the day for colleagues and students, they access history through celebrations, site and museum visits, movies, national holidays, and primary school books.
How then, shall we properly think about this national holiday? What does it mean that a nation which continues to violently repress social and political movements of the kind King ordered holds his birthday as a national holiday?
Here I will list a few “dos and don’ts” suggestions for personal use and to share with youth:
DO NOT think of or teach youth that the Civil Rights Movement is a relic of antiquity. Dr. King, who would have been 85 years old this month, could very likely have still been alive and active in the struggle had he not been assassinated. Many of us have grand and great-grandparents who are older than Dr. King and very much still alive.
DO NOT go out expressly to pick up trash or otherwise clean yours, or someone else’s neighborhood. I can assure you that no matter how much rubbish you purge from streets, parks, and playgrounds it won’t prevent law enforcement from racially profiling People of Color.
DO NOT tell youth that because of Dr. King’s nonviolent rhetoric and actions racism is over and we now live in a post-racial society, citing the election of Barack Obama as evidence. Imbalances across a number of key socioeconomic registers, whether affordable access to healthy food choices or the infant mortality rate, continue to reveal chronic racial disparities within American society.
DO listen to and think deeply about King’s full I Have a Dream speech. The heavily sound-bitten (which I call redacted) version disseminated by corporate media every January is designed to make the public feel content about American progress. Struggles to end anti-black social, economic, and political oppression are, though often in flux, ongoing.
DO creatively find ways to challenge entrenched power, especially if you live with white skin privilege. This will be difficult because white people have a vested interest in not challenging a structure from which they benefit by no fault of their own.
DO join the fight! Unite with a local, national, or global organization doing work to end various forms of institutionalized oppression. Or at least financially support one.
For more on the authentic Dr. King and his sustained struggle against racial oppression, economic exploitation, and political domination read the last book he wrote before his assassination, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?