Whitewashing King


Dr-Martin-Luther-King-Jr-600x459By now most of us have seen the video footage of a young African-American woman being pushed, harangued, and verbally abused at a Donald Trump Super Tuesday rally, with the candidate egging on the abusers. Unless you are a bigot, a misogynist, or a sociopath, you find this display of behavior disgustingly symptomatic of the jack-booted mentality that has swept up the GOP this election cycle. Fascism has come to America wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.

But there is a softer, more subtle racism that is emerging from this event.

I readily admit that I have become rather insufferable lately. I am earning a doctoral degree in the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so I spend most of my day, outside of church work, reading King’s writings, watching documentaries, consulting secondary sources and biographies, and praying about how I can follow boldly and confidently in Dr. King’s footsteps. The fact is, most of us who did not live through the Civil Rights Movement greatly misunderstand King. And I have been telling people this more and more often. We are whitewashing King more each year.

King’s legacy, as my mentor  Rev. Dr. C. Anthony Hunt points out, has become caricatured. His work has been reduced to sound bytes and short quotations; he has been rendered a milquetoast, soft-spoken man who gently pushed for change in the cradle of the Confederacy without ever doing anything audacious or revolutionary. Because King never hit back, the assumption has become that he willingly accepted White supremacy (or perhaps just white superiority) and was just looking for African Americans to have a seat on the bus. The assumption is that King’s enemy was the KKK and other outliers, and once they were silenced racism as we knew it no longer existed. I mean, Blacks have the right to vote, Affirmative Action, and a whole host of other legal protections, right? So, everything is okay now. Any complaints about racism are made by rabble rousers and un-American troublemakers. Just look at the majority of White reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement.

King propelled himself into the lion’s den. During the Montgomery bus boycott when an arrest warrant was issued for him, King was in Atlanta visiting his parents. King Sr. was terrified that his son would be arrested and never be seen again. The death threats were a daily occurrence, with as many as 40 issued at a time. Their house had already been firebombed, as would be Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s and dozens of others, including people not directly involved with the movement, in the coming weeks. King insisted that he return home and be arrested, knowing that his actions would spark others to think about the conditions causing segregation. He was counting on a larger sense of moral shame enveloping White America.

But King also became frustrated by the lack of White help. When the busses finally were integrated, the Montgomery Improvement Association, of which King was president, prepared African Americans for the shift in culture. No White organizations did the same thing. The onus of change was, once again, placed on the oppressed. Of course, Whites helped in the movement. But those token few should not be elevated to represent the actions of Whites as a whole. The Silent Majority maintained a more nuanced and subtle racism that is growing in intensity today.

I have been engaging in conversations with others about the video, about what it represents. While I readily admit that I do not know the full context of the events outside of the basic facts—Donald Trump does not “own” his rallies; anyone with a ticket or who has been admitted through the doors has the right to be there—it is clear that the young woman was assaulted and verbally abused with horrible epithets directed at her race, gender, and politics. I don’t know if there was a precipitating event; I don’t really think it matters, unless someone can prove to me that she struck a person first, which I sincerely doubt. She, in a powerful display of nonviolent resistance, did not strike back. Dr. King would have been proud.

But I have read and heard people say that she should not have been there in the first place if the purpose of her presence was to antagonize. People even use Christian justification to say that we need to love these people (Trump supporters) and not rile them up, because we will then never change their minds that way. To this I say, hogwash. Utter and complete hogwash that once again places the responsibility on the victim. On the oppressed. And it attempts to recognize as legitimate their hatred and violence. It says that the problem is really just a difference of opinion and if we stay in our respective spaces there won’t be an issue. This implies that they have positions that are worthy of respect and tolerance because of their culture and heritage. It is the Confederate flag debate written on the bodies of abused and violated persons of color.

Yesterday I wrote of agapic love, the foundation of my faith and the motivation of my entire life. It is not easy. In fact, I sometimes wish that I were not a Christian because I take religion seriously and this ish is really difficult. It requires a deconstruction of ego and the ability to accept and direct love without particularity and conscious choice. It means that I love my enemy and pray for those who persecute me and others. I’m not persecuted much, so really it is others. I see and hear the fear and anger in the voices of my friends of color and my heart aches. Truly aches. And I feel rise up in me an anger that is at times overwhelming, an anger that others of my color and gender feel so entitled, act so violently, behave so ignorantly, that I am sometimes ashamed to be a White man.

But this is not about my feelings. The persecution of others involves me but is not about me. This piece is a call to stop using Dr. King as some white-washed, sanitized House Negro who deferred to massa and did not radically and courageously give his own life, literally and figuratively, for the cause of justice. It is time to recognize that while Dr. King did not agree with the methods of Malcolm X, he understood the sentiment driving the Nation of Islam. He understood the anger. He felt it as well. He struggled with not hating those who oppressed him and others. He felt frustration with the lack of understanding within the White community about how and why racism is systemic and deeply-rooted in our culture. Before the end of his life, King had begun to emphasize even more the need for an economic revolution in the country. Rev. Billy Kyles, who was standing next to King when he was shot on April 4, 1968, said on the 40th anniversary that it was King’s work on economics that got him killed.

So there’s an irony here. I am a White guy trying to school others on Dr. King. I get that, on some level, this can be problematic. But I am a White voice that is screaming out against what is happening in our country. I try to have conversations with fellow Whites (and persons of color, when appropriate) about how color blindness is its own form of racism; that the “can’t we all just get along” mentality is much easier to adopt when you are in a position of power and can ignore slights both overt and covert; that nonviolent resistance is not weak or passive, but rather is a philosophy that requires a fearless dedication to exposing injustices no matter the cost to one’s bodily safety; and that Dr. King is not to be pulled out as an example of acquiescence (through the use of non-contextual quotes) in order to tell protesting persons of color that they are “doing it wrong.”

This young woman did not go to a Klan rally; she did not attend a meeting of the Aryan Brotherhood. She went to a political event led by a major party candidate for the presidency of the United States. If we are not uniformly disgusted by the events, and if we do not squarely put the responsibility for the violence and ugliness on the shoulders of those who perpetrated it, we are essentially back in 1955 Montgomery telling African Americans that the back of the bus is good enough. They should be glad to just be on the bus, we are saying. If a young African American woman cannot safely attend a political event without having her person assaulted in word and deed, she clearly is not free. No one is free. But White people, lets not make this about us and our freedom. Let’s make this about how a great number of us are now clamoring around a man who wants to dismantle the first amendment and has such a shoddy understanding of law he thinks that there are federal libel statutes that he can relax and then, as president of the United States, win a defamation suit. It is about us standing up and decrying his expressions of white supremacy consciousness, of calling out his base attempts to rile up racial fear and stoke the flames of growing resentment within White circles that feel that they need to “take back their country.” This is obviously code for “Make America White Again.”

We cannot sit silently and let the work be done only by the oppressed. We need to speak out, act out, provide our support in body and word. So many of us in Gen X have said, “Had I been alive during the Civil Rights era, I would have marched with Dr. King.” Well, another time of racial crisis is upon us. Have no doubt. A vote for Donald Trump is a vote for White supremacy. A vote for Trump is a vote for fascism and a society that greatly endangers the lives of non-White persons. We who have White skin may feel threatened by Trump, but not to the extent of our non-White counterparts. This is not hyperbole. This is not left-wing reactionary politics. This is not a chicken little moment. There are chickens alright, but they are roosting and growing more powerful by the day. Soon, they will be unleashed and begin pecking us all to death.


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