Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.: The stories we’re told, and the ones that are hidden

How white comfort has co-opted a narrative of resistance and power.

Martin Luther King Jr., born Jan. 15 of 1929, assassinated April 4 of 1968. A minister and one of the most prominent leaders of the Civil Rights movement from 1955 on. Known for his nonviolent tactics and civil disobedience, King has become a household name in America, and the figure many look to when discussing the movement. This discussion, however, has become narrow and even King’s most famous speech is often cut into pieces for a more palatable message. 

“I have a Dream,” delivered on Aug. 28 of 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of over 250,000, rings in the ears of many Americans. As one of the most iconic speeches of all time, clips from the speech are often played when discussing the Civil Rights movement. However, it is seldom played in its entirety, and parts of it would come as shock to many.  

It is no coincidence that one of the most quoted lines from the speech, one in the series of which inspired the title that we know it by today, is “I have a dream that one day right there in Alabama little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” This line evokes ideas of equality and togetherness, it paints a picture of a peaceful world where we can live together as one. It does this without pointing to the pain and atrocities committed against people of color in America, without forcing white people to take accountability for the injustices of this country. 

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” He elicits the ideas of America, what is promised, the very words in our constitution and simply chooses to apply those words to himself and others like him. He subverts the narrative of the slaveholders that founded our country and instead creates something better and more equitable from those same words. 

“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” In these words he bears the shortcomings of so many American ideologies and in doing so chooses to hold America to account in ways it never had been, nor intended to, before. 

Despite the support for King’s work that we see today, during his time he was seen as radical, revolutionary and to be quite frank, a threat. During his life, King faced much opposition. Every nonviolent march he led was met with violence from local police. He was targeted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He even spent time in prison for his work. And despite it all, his work did not end.

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here …” King addresses the eight moderate white clergymen who had criticized the march he led in Birmingham and other demonstrations in a letter from his cell. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere … ” Thus, it is our obligation to stand against injustice wherever and whenever it presents itself. 

We are still fighting the same fight today, we are still demanding justice and equality, and the white moderate is still demanding our silence and demanding our inaction. Any step towards progress is halted and watered down into something less powerful and less revolutionary. The Black Lives Matter movement illustrates this clearly. After the gruesome murder of George Floyd millions of Americans across the Unites States of America took to the streets to demand change, to demand accountability. Half a century after the civil rights movement ended and we are still demanding racial justice, people of color are still seeking to be treated equally. In the day to day lives of people of color it is clear that little has changed since Martin Luther King Jr. was marching in the streets. 

“ … the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice …  who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom …  Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

The white moderate is uncomfortable with a departure from the status quo, from the world as they have come to know it which benefits them. As such, they are willing to stand in the way of true progress and refuse to stand in opposition to injustice. King has become a symbol for the very white moderate that he spoke out against in his letter. The message of King and his legacy of non-violence has been co-opted in order to police the actions of those seeking justice. Using cherry picked quotes to demonize those they don’t agree with. Refusing to recognize the full scope of King’s beliefs and his ties to people like Malcolm X, and the need for diversity of tactics. 

“I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label … ” 

Compromises are always being sought, even today we see a refusal to meet the demands of the movement for true justice. We cannot afford moderate takes anymore, we never could. President elect Joe Biden refuses to consider the stance of abolition, even discussing a need for more police funding. Police reform is the only thing currently on the table for a national discussion, but there is no reformation of a system created from racial inequity, that has targeted and killed black and brown people for centuries. We need to take a revolutionary position, we need to demand radical equality and true racial justice. In the words of King himself, “Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”