Hijacking the Language and Legacy of Dr. King

Yesterday, on the day honoring the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, a lot of people were posting quotes from Dr. King to Facebook and Twitter.  By far, the most commonly posted quote was one from King’s I Have a Dream speech that he delivered on August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.  During that speech, Dr. King said,

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

His sentiment is a powerful one, a sentiment that calls for a different racial reality than he knew as a child or than his children knew.  This quote is part of a radical ideology of racial justice that moves past a negative peace of White Privilege and Supremacy to a justice that is only realized through concerted social action.

Out of context, though, White people LOVE this quote.

As someone who regularly takes part in or initiates conversations about race and racial justice, I have been noticing a disturbing trend more and more often lately: people using the words of Dr. King out of context to silence conversations on race.

The conversation usually goes something like this:

Person A:  A colorblind ideology is not useful!  We need to acknowledge race, its history, and the role it plays in present reality!

Person B:  By bringing up race, you’re the one being racist!  Race shouldn’t matter!  Remember, Dr. King once said that we should “not be judged by the color of [our] skin but by the content of [our] character.

Person A:  That’s completely out of context!  Dr. King saw race as a reality we must face . . .

Person B:  [Interrupts] By bringing race into the conversation, you’re only distracting us from the real conversation we should be having.  After all, White people can be discriminated against, but you don’t hear us complaining!

Person A: *Bangs Head Against a Wall*

The problem with this line of thinking is that it divorces the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a symbol from his lived reality as a radical, anti-war, socialist-leaning, anti-racist activist who recognized the intersections of oppression.  Instead, he becomes a moderate, race-neutral man on a pedestal whose words can actually be used to argue against programs and actions that might realize social justice.

One of the things that is most striking to me about this issue, though, is that it is not a partisan trend.  I find White people on both the left and right using this line of thinking.  For instance, a White, leftist #OccupyOakland activist was recently arguing with Jay Smooth on Twitter about the ways in which colorblindness as a value within the movement is being used to silence activists of Color and their concerns.  Jay Smooth was trying to make the point that it does not help the movement to have an attitude of, “Put aside our differences for the betterment of the whole.”  In fact, that only can create resentment in the movement and doesn’t realize justice.

In response, the White activist had the following to say:

In essence, he was trying to use the words of Dr. King to argue why we should not be divided by race, but this fictionalized Dr. King is not the Dr. King of, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

On the right, I hear a similar logic.  The logic from the right is often that conversations about race are, in themselves, racist because they “choose to judge people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.”

I saw this hijacking of Dr. King’s legacy clearly from the right in Newt Gingrich’s language on the holiday honoring one of the greatest activists for social justice.

In his speech “honoring” Dr. King, he discusses the Rev. Dr.’s passion, his faith, and his persistence.  He asks people to “look forward” and “ask ourselves to what degree can we give to [young people] the same spirit of hope, the same idealism, the same belief in America, the same understanding that salvation comes from faith in God, and that together we can, in fact, create a dramatically better future for all Americans of every background.”

However, in the same day, a day that honors the man who helped lead the Poor People’s Movement, Newt had the following to say:

Not only is the former Speaker of the House of Representatives paternalistic and classist in his language, but he refuses to see how his racially-coded language could be insulting to Black Americans (and for that he received a standing ovation).

It is insane that someone could speak out of one side of their mouth lauding the legacy of an advocate for justice and the poor and out of the other side to put down the poor as lacking work ethic and as desiring food stamps over jobs while equating the nation’s first Black president as “the food stamp president.”

Whether from the left or the right, this sort of language does little more than defend what Dr. King called a “negative peace” where those who are oppressed must “passively accept [their] unjust plight.”

Dr. King had harsh words in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail for White Moderates like @geekeasy2 and Newt Gingrich, words that must give all White people pause:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that 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 constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”



Check out my post from last year’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration: Forsaking the Dream – Reflections on the Vision of Dr. King.


5 thoughts on “Hijacking the Language and Legacy of Dr. King

  1. Yep. This right here.

    You know, I most definitely was the “but I don’t see race” white girl once. I wasn’t a bad person, just ridic naive and not really paying attention. I have since seen the error of my ways.

    I also have to say, I feel the underlying theme here can be applied to almost any movement (feminist, LGBTQ+ etc) where people will merely say “oh, now, let’s all hold hands we’re all equal!” as a way to *stop* conversation. That, of course, is the key here.

    It’s also in the only way things become mainstream. @andreanalynne alluded to this in her recent post about the movie “Pariah” – she loved it because it didn’t force lesbians into a neat little mainstream box a la “Modern Family” (http://queerblackfeminist.blogspot.com/2012/01/first-you-gotta-put-your-neck-into-it.html). The only way groups win acceptance is by becoming “mainstream” in some nonthreatening way, and actually say “oh, you’re right, white moderates. We shouldn’t see our differences – let’s be like you.” Which doesn’t fix a damn thing, it just perpetuates the subtle ways in which racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, exist in our world today (and completely ignore how they exist outside our lil boxes).

    In his letter, Martin Luther King Jr. was already experiencing this, and saw it coming.

  2. Oh, PS, not sure if you’ve noticed all the “separate but equal” talk re: gender this time over at the GMP these days. Augh.

  3. […] There is much work to do to realize King’s radical dream, yet we do his agency disservice with constant conjecture about what he would or would not support today, and his words, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” have been hijacked by those who wish to maintain the unjust status quo. […]

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