Quoted: On the Misintepretations of Dr. King’s Messages

I wonder about the appropriation of his legacy and work to fit sanitized reform agendas.

I am thinking about the horrifying shooting in Arizona and how Dr. King’s message of non-violence will me used to justify a certain level of complacency and turning a blind eye to state violence. I am thinking of days in jail and young bodies against water hoses, batons, fists, dogs and guns. All too often, when the work of Dr. King is mentioned it is in the context of non-violence and peace as if those words equaled no violence. As if the struggles before him, the struggles contemporary to him, and the struggles after him have not cost lives, blood, freedom.

Too often, non-violent struggle is equated with no violence, as if we can all just wish the injustice away and it will all be ok. Now, as I have stated before, I am not a pacifist, but what I think people most misinterpret about Dr. King, is that they take his messages and interpret his words and actions as encouraging passivity. Just like there are those who take the 14th amendment to play divide and conquer games between Latinos and Blacks (as if the two could not possibly exist in one person). We have seen King’s legacy as a church leader used to justify homophobia and transphobia.

What we need to see more of is an analysis and understanding that no matter what you label struggle, standing up against injustice leave open the mind, body and spirit to violence, from the state (i.e. Boder Patrol, I.C.E.) and from those who will use the “state” to justify their actions (i.e. Minutemen and Police in the University of Puerto Rico). Sometimes this violence is internalized and used against one another in indirect and direct ways.

~~Maegan La Mala, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Peace Appropriation

We have turned King into a milquetoast moderate whose agenda went little beyond the ability to sit next to white people on a bus. We’ve stripped away from the public remembrance of this man his calls for income redistribution, his insistence that the United States has become the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” and his proclamation that poverty, racism and militarism are the “triple evils” that America’s rulers have not the courage to confront.

When conservatives can effectively twist King’s singular line about judging people on the “content of their character” rather than the color of their skin into a reason to oppose affirmative action, even though he openly supported such efforts in his writings and interviews in 1961, 1963, 1965 and again in 1967, it ought not surprise us that folks are a bit confused about who King was, and about the principles for which he stood.

The way in which we have forgotten or been misled about King’s legacy is never more apparent than when asking children what they know about his message. Sadly, when I have done so, the most typical answer given is that King stood for not “hitting people,” or “not hitting back if they hit you first,” or that his message would be, were he alive today, “don’t join a gang.” While all these things are true I suppose, they rather miss the point.

After all, King’s commitment to non-violence had a purpose larger than non-violence itself. Non-violence was, for King and the movement, a means to a larger end of social, political and economic justice. Non-violence was a tactic meant to topple racism and economic exploitation, and lead the world away from cataclysmic warfare. That so many young people seem not to get that part, because teachers are apparently loathe to give it to them, renders King’s non-violent message no more particularly important than the banal parental reminder that we should “use our words” to resolve conflicts, rather than our fists. Thanks, but if that message were all it took to get a national holiday named for you, my mother would have had her own years ago.

So we compartmentalize the non-violence message, much as we compartmentalize books about King and the movement in that section of the bookstore established for African-American history; much as we have compartmentalized those streets named for the man, locating them only in the blackest and often poorest parts of town.

Were this tendency to render King divisible on multiple levels—abstracting non-violence from justice, colorblindness from racial equity, and public service from radical social transformation—merely an academic matter, it would hardly merit our concern. But its impact is greater than that. Our only hope as a society is to see the connections between the issues King was addressing and our current predicament, to see that what affects part of the whole affects the greater body, to understand that racism and racial inequity must be of concern to us all, because they pose risks to us all.

~~Tim Wise, “We Twisted King’s Dream, So We Live With His Nightmare

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

Latoya Peterson (DC) is the Owner and Editor (not the Founder!) of Racialicious, Arturo García (San Diego) is the Managing Editor, Andrea Plaid (NYC) is the Associate Editor. You can email us at team@racialicious.com.

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