Last Monday, January 17, the nation celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. As with every other year on that day, countless politicians and legislators who have dedicated their careers to working against everything Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought and stood for shared quotes from the late Civil Rights leader. Then, Black comedian and actress Yvette Nicole Brown cut through the noise with a timely post stating what Black Americans were thinking. The post read, “May the MLK quote you post today align with the words and actions you choose over the next 364 days.” The United States misappropriated Dr. King to the point that people actively working to destroy his legacy feel comfortable enough to stand publicly and cite the Reverend while promoting their own racist agenda.
Republican Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, did just that late last year as he introduced the “Stop Woke Act.” The governor said, “You think about what MLK stood for. He said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character.” He continued, “You listen to some of these people nowadays, they don’t talk about that.” The legislation itself pushes back on racial equity efforts created in schools in the wake of police officer Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd in May 2020. The bill is fighting against the efforts to create the racial equity Dr. King dedicated his life to fighting for. Honoring Dr. King means aligning oneself with what he stood for, not misappropriating his words to fit one’s own agenda. So, in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this piece will discuss a few truths about Dr. King that have been conveniently left out of the Civil Rights narrative today.
First off and most importantly, Dr. King did not have a colorblind approach to the fight for civil rights. He saw race and understood the Black race’s position in the United States, and he wanted Black people to be seen as equal. So, the notion that Dr. King wanted Americans to ignore the issue of race is false and based on quotes taken out of context to fit a conservative agenda to preserve systems and ideologies of White Supremacy.
Citing Dr. King while combating Critical Race Theory is particularly absurd considering his understanding of systemic racism in the United States. In his final book, Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King criticizes White people who are complacent and benefit from structural racism while denying that they are racist. This line of thought would definitely make some White people “uncomfortable” or “feel guilty.” As such, it would probably be banned in states that have passed “Anti-CRT bills,” which ban topics that make people feel uncomfortable or guilty because of their race. Moreso, Dr. King consistently used Black history to contextualize the Civil Rights Movement, citing the first Africans brought to America, the Dred Scott decision, slavery, and other moments in Black history. Those passing “Anti-CRT bills” are attempting to erase the history Dr. King utilized and promoted.
Dr. King was a radical. In Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King writes, “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.” In his speech, The Other America, Dr. King says, “We have the resources” to eliminate poverty. He continues, “The question is, whether our nation has the will, and I submit that if we can spend $35 billion a year to fight an ill-considered war in Vietnam, and $20 billion to put a man on the moon, our nation can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.” Eliminating poverty was a crucial part of what Dr. King sought to achieve in his fight for equality.
In The Other America, Dr. King also embraces the idea of a “guaranteed minimum income for all people.” He felt that a guaranteed minimum income would help Black Americans gain needed economic security.
For these positions and his other efforts in creating a more just America, the FBI and others labeled Dr. King a communist.
The ideas of ending poverty and a guaranteed basic income have come up today. Progressives such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have talked about the importance of ending poverty. For this, people have shunned them as communist and anti-American. When campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president, Andrew Yang proposed the idea of a universal basic income. In August 2021, conservative political commentator and Fox Nation host Tomi Lahren called the idea “a pilot program for socialism.”
So, while many embrace the caricature of Dr. King White America has created to comfort and empower itself, if Dr. King were alive today, he would undoubtedly be labeled a socialist or communist radical along with everyone else who has openly embraced these ideas.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an unapologetically Black man dedicated to working towards a more just and equitable America. He saw ending poverty and discussing the nation’s true history as crucial elements of achieving that. We should honor Dr. King by learning about him, what he actually stood for – the policies and ideas he supported – and aligning ourselves with them. Or, if you disagree with him, don’t. But do not misappropriate Dr. King’s legacy to push an agenda that hurts the community he dedicated his life to fighting for.