Every year, on Martin Luther King day, quotes from the “I Have A Dream” speech are shared and seemingly everyone mourns the civil rights leader. Like many, LeRon Barton asks – does America really love them man himself, or just a carefully edited and sanitised idea?
Between the months of January and April, there are endless tributes and praises of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rightfully so, the slain civil rights leader, winner of the Noble Peace Prize, and recipient of a doctorate in theology inspired many people through his non-violent approach to racial harmony and economic fairness.
King was a fantastic orator who could touch people with his words; his many speeches including “I Have A Dream” are heralded as the greatest to have ever been written. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which King helped create, is cited as one of biggest victories against white supremacy and his leadership style of inclusion is still the standard for activists in America today. His picture is adorned on the walls of many Black homes across the country. Dr. King is an icon that is beloved by all people, so why do I have a negative reaction when white people express their love for him?
Last year, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, the usual platitudes from white people flooded the internet. “Love can only drive out hate” memes about Dr. King rising above it all and being a unifier filled social media. I could not go on Twitter without some white man or woman talking about how Dr. King was a real American and how the country could learn from him. It honestly made me want to heave.
“There seems to be a disconnect. If a white person admires King, that person needs to also support ALL of the causes that King embodied: fighting racism/white supremacy, ending police terrorism towards Black people, and equal pay for all races, among others”
The next day, I posted a Facebook status reading “I don’t want to read any think pieces or opinions about MLK from white people. They all seem phoney. I don’t care. He was ours – Black people.” As predicted, I received the usual push-back and the “not all” white people responses. I wasn’t trying to instigate; I simply had had enough. All of the ‘love” MLK was getting from white America made me sick.
I have always felt like white America was hypocritical towards Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When he was among the living, King was hated. He was called a troublemaker, attacked, and arrested. White ministers said King was “stirring up the Negroes” and he regularly received death threats. But that is not my gripe with the supposed love white people have for King. There seems to be a disconnect. If a white person admires King, that person needs to also support ALL of the causes that King embodied: fighting racism/white supremacy, ending police terrorism towards Black people, and equal pay for all races, among others. There is silence from many white people when these causes are highlighted, as if they are not a part of King’s legacy.
Look at how Black Lives Matter supporters are viewed. They are fighting for the same thing as King – equality. There are some minor differences, however. Instead of suits, they wear jeans and sweatshirts. Instead of speaking elegantly, they speak in hood slang. Instead of coming to the table asking for a conversation, these young activists are demanding to be heard. Perhaps white people only like the idea of King and not the man himself.
Look familiar? The popular quote shared everywhere on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
America loves to hear about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who preached and practiced non-violence, urging his protesters to not resort to physical attacks and riots. King felt that violence was immoral and impractical and that through non-violence, the Negro’s plight would be better heard. This is celebrated throughout the world. King is held up as a model for how to combat racism/white supremacy. “He fought for Civil Rights the right way. He wasn’t a rioting thug who stopped traffic and called white people racist. He loved everyone!”
This is what many white people take away from King’s tactics towards equal rights. Parts of the “I have a dream speech” are cited. His quote “I have decided to stick with love; hate is too great of a burden to bear” is used when Black people began to point out the everyday racism of whites or as some would call it, “reverse racism.”
This is the King that the majority of white people like: the man who believed in the humanity of all men, the leader who did not point fingers directly at white people for being the creators of white supremacy and the recipients of all its spoils. The figure who wanted all children of all hues to play together, even though white people still segregate schools in 2019. In fact by some measures, school segregation is getting worse.
“Many in America would say a radical Negro is never good, black people should never think about fighting back… With King practicing non-violence and believing in “turning the other cheek”, this allows white America to single him out. Only he is looked at as an acceptable Black leader. King has “transcended” from a Black man to someone who is acceptable to the white masses”
This King washes away all their sins and allows them to not answer for how racism/white supremacy has benefited who they are. White people love this King so much, they hold him up to Black activists, writers, artists, and politicians like a mirror and ask, “How come you can’t be like King? He loved everybody.” When many white people talk of the greatness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there is a selective praise of him and only him. While Rosa Parks is viewed as the “woman who wouldn’t move to the back of the bus” and Jesse Jackson is known for his political victories, no other figure in the Civil Rights Movement is given as much credence as King.
As a young boy, my Black History Month revolved around slavery, King, Parks, and Michael Jordan. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned of the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichael, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Malcolm X. I have often wondered why the man formerly known as Malcolm Little isn’t celebrated as much as King. Both men wanted liberation and equal rights for African Americans. Both men were loved, highly intelligent, and incredible orators. I believe one reason is because Malcolm X refused to soften his approach towards addressing white supremacy.
Malcolm advocated for self-defence – the Negro protecting him and herself against their oppressors. While that may seem logical (and it is), that kind of talk is looked at as radical. Many in America would say a radical Negro is never good… black people should never think about fighting back, even though this country was founded on rebellion. With King practicing non-violence and believing in “turning the other cheek”, this allows white America to single him out. Only he is looked at as an acceptable Black leader. King has “transcended” from a Black man to someone who is acceptable to the white masses.
Recently, my friend Jon and I talked about during the Civil Rights Movement, King was demonised by then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, calling him “The Black Messiah.” Today, King is a sanitised figure who is cited by many white people as their hero. For me, this is similar to a white guy saying, “I have Black friends” or a white woman telling you, “I voted for Obama twice.”
“Towards the end of his life, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began to see that white people had no intention of fighting with the Negro for equal treatment in this country. He regretted his push for integration, famously saying, “I fear I may have integrated my people into a burning house.”
Similar to many Black figures who were deemed controversial, King has posthumously received a “second life.” In the years that he was alive, King was regularly attacked. He and his followers were pelted with rocks and arrested in many cities in which he led protests. Chicago, in particular, was brutal. The sit-ins and marches that he and SNICC participated in were viewed as troublesome. Many white and Black clergy thought King was “causing trouble”. Reverend Bill Graham, a friend of King, advised him to “calm down.” A 1966 Gallup poll stated that two-thirds of America had an unfavourable opinion of King, up from 26 points in 1963.
Fast forward 20 to 30 years, many of these negative feelings about King have disappeared and there is a national holiday in his honour. How is this possible? Dr. Stacey Patton, journalist and child advocate, has famously said, “White America has a necrophiliac relationship with Dr. King.” It seems that it’s only in old age or death, that a Black man can be redeemed in white America’s eyes. Muhammad Ali, who vigorously opposed racism and the military draft, was looked at as an icon several years later. His actions years ago were blasted, now he is seen as brave. Nelson Mandela, the South African freedom fighter, was labelled a terrorist but towards his last years, he was thought of as a global symbol of resistance and unity.
I often wonder if former San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick will receive the same treatment. Kaepernick is not playing professional football due to being “blackballed” by the NFL for his on the field protests against police terrorism. He is viewed as disruptive and racist by many white people. Years down the line, will these same people think of Kaepernick as a hero and look glowingly on him as “they do King?
Towards the end of his life, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began to see that white people had no intention of fighting with the Negro for equal treatment in this country. He regretted his push for integration, famously saying,
“I fear I may have integrated my people into a burning house.” If King would have continued down this path and become more radical with his views, would white America hold the same feelings for him as they do now?
We will never know, because on April 4, 1968 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, 39 years old, was murdered, by America.
LeRon L. Barton is a writer in San Francisco. His book All We Really Need Is Love: Stories of Dating, Relationships, Divorce, and Marriage is available at Amazon.com. You can view his TEDx speech – How I overcame my stutter and also visit his websiteFollow @MainlineLeRon