a collage of images of Martin Luther King, jr

State of Disunion

Who Remembers the Real Martin Luther King Jr.?

The civil rights leader has become an American paragon, his words and image coopted and distorted by the very people who sought to destroy him. Let’s remember the man and what he actually stood for.

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The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is an American paragon, so universally revered that it is hard, in this present moment, to actually remember him. Dr. King is so incessantly praised that we seem to have forgotten that he was widely reviled, so broadly honored that we have missed how many rejected the celebration of his life, so endlessly uplifted that we actively ignore that his voice was snatched away by an assassin’s bullet. In our efforts to enshrine Dr. King in our national memory, we have preserved a man but lost a legacy

This was certainly not the intended destination when the late Michigan Congressman John Conyers, the Congressional Black Congress, and the estimable Coretta Scott King petitioned ceaselessly for the national holiday that we now celebrate. We were supposed to recognize the breadth of his vision for the country, the depth of his devotion to non-violence and anti-imperialism, the ways in which he represented a movement more than any individual accomplishment. Instead, Dr. King is now a compilation of tiny sentiments and contextless citations, the condensed vapor of the vague notions white Americans have of “justice” and “fairness.” He has become small and consumable, utterly coopted by the mainstream he spent so much time and energy castigating.

Clip a speech, trim a quote, and Dr. King can now endorse anything—and does. If you need quick cover to “prove” you’re not racist, that you care about Black people, or even that you “don’t see race,” grab Dr. King as a human shield and get out of jail free. Not even two weeks after the coup, 127 of the 147 Congressional Republicans who endorsed the overthrow of an election put out statements in praise of a man who could be considered the peak of American citizenship. Just last month, to feed the false furor over critical race theory (“CRT”), Gov. Ron DeSantis invoked Dr. King’s words as an excuse for banning Black history from the classroom, as if the civil rights icon would have been pleased to see his own existence erased. And today, we are guaranteed to see paeans to the greatness of Dr. King from the very same lawmakers who are tearing apart the Voting Rights Act that he marched and bled to bring into law.

Denied the option to expunge the memory of Dr. King, the newest iteration of his political opponents have chosen to exploit it, taking the little that functions for their ends and disregarding all of the rest. Dr. King is no longer a non-violent warrior for justice, a moral crusader in defense of a marginalized people; he is merely a shorthand for racial fairness, an easy label to stick on to any actions that might draw hew and cry from those who carry on his fight in his absence. Take his words, shear them of context, insist that political “good” exists like the transitive property: Voter ID and election audits are “good”; he was “good”; therefore Dr. King agrees that our actions are good. Here’s a single sentence that proves as much.

Shrink a movement down to a man, and it loses its purpose while he loses his voice. Dr. King did not ask to be cast in bronze or carved into stone; he asked for progress to uplift a people. He did not demand glory and monuments, but freedom and justice. He did not dream of a world of dignity for himself—when he lived in one that left him abused, marginalized, and finally assassinated—but for his four children, and the character he had instilled in them. He insisted upon an America as it should be, repaired of her harms.

These details have been scrubbed away in the power wash of American memory, a process that scrapes out meaning and leaves only neat narratives behind. He was brave, but we are never given view of what he needed courage for. He was eloquent, but we do not hear the full breadth of his message. He demanded freedom, but the parameters can be defined for yourself. Etched in stone, preserved and kept, Dr. King is a hollowed out saint in the American tradition. It is less important that he remain who he is than that he serve as what mainstream white Americana needs him to be.

Who he was, what he represented: This memory has come with renewed urgency in a moment where we find ourselves in deep conflict over the multiracial democracy he helped to temporarily usher in. And yet, more than a half-century after his assassination, we are losing the lived knowledge of the man himself. His contemporaries have aged and passed as he has stayed embedded in time; his children have surpassed his brutally short lifespan. We are soon to be left with only the historical memory of his achievements, his dignity, his purpose, and if he remains a mascot of racial redemption, it will be akin to having no memory at all.

It was a battle to have his name known, to support the work and efforts he gave his life for, to sustain the vision of a country integrated in the presence of peace and the absence of injustice. The holiday dedicated to his memory had to navigate a brutal Senate filibuster, arguments over financial cost and economic productivity, and the intransigence of state governments that rejected the dignity and honor of racial equity. Now this is the journey of the more substantial elements of his legacy, and it is our battle to give these accomplishments the heft and weight of national monuments, or let the country make a mockery of the one that stands.

This is what it means to restore meaning to myths, to make our own history. We have only the truth of a man and the work of a movement; we are not at base camp, let alone the mountaintop. And yet it is the best testament to a life well-lived and a country well-loved because in the course of history, it is not what we remember that shapes us: it is what we have forgotten.


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