Because I grew up as an “average” White American, my learnings about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have mostly come from White America. I was in my mid-20s before I first understood this. Only now, in my mid-50s, can I actually look back and see the lessons more clearly.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can now look back and see the selective and curated messages that White America taught me about Dr. King over the years. If you are a White American, I invite you to look back with me today.
First, White America Taught Me To Ignore Dr. King.
As a child of the late 60s, my experience of Dr. King was much like the Don Henry lyrics in “Beautiful Fool.” :
Preempted Disney one night,
And all us kids got so upset.
We thought that you were
A trouble instigator
Marching through our TV sets.”
This was true for me. No White person — no teacher, relative, mentor — ever talked to me about Martin Luther King Jr. during my childhood. At least, not in any way I consciously remember now. The adults in my life vainly attempted to extend a Disneyesque vision of 1950s America into the late 1960s, and mostly ignored the tumultuous changes, all around us, as we grew up in the Preston Hollow neighborhood of Dallas.
Looking back, I believe these adults had no way to process what was happening. The way of life they’d assumed would be there forever was challenged by a younger, more diverse, generation. Civil Rights, Vietnam, Women’s Rights…none of these existed in my childhood world.
Nor did Dr. King.
This is a lesson we should pay attention to again, of course. Once again, we are living through a tumultuous time, and far too much of White America is either ignoring, or actively resisting, the demographic changes that will soon assign White people to permanent minority status, politically and socially. Far too few of us have meditated on what these changes will mean for us, and far too many of us have spent time actively resisting and fighting the inevitable “browning of America.”
I believe that last instinct — to resist rather than understand these demographic changes — was assisted by the fact that too many of us were first taught “ignore” Dr. King.
White America Taught Me To Conflate Dr. King with Traitors
The next conscious-thoughts I had about Dr. King were connected with the push to create the MLK Holiday. While that holiday now folds into our national story, and is an assumed part of every year, it’s important to remember that its very creation was a struggle.
Many states — including my own State of Texas — actively opposed the King Holiday. White people suggested King was not of great-enough stature to deserve a holiday. He was not a “Founding Father,” for example.
But, even worse, once it became clear that the King Holiday would be approved, White people advocated for continuing celebration of the Confederacy on this very weekend too. “Confederate Heroes Day” is STILL TO THIS DAY actual state holiday in Texas that falls the day after MLK Day. Lawmakers at this very legislative session, are still fighting to eliminate it.
All of this, of course, creates an unhealthy unconscious analogy in the minds of White Americans:
“Sure,” we tell ourselves, “Jefferson Davis was a traitor to America…” But then we apply a “Whataboutism” to Dr. King: “He *also* stirred things up…both men fought for ‘their view’ of our country, and there is nobility in both.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Jefferson Davis and his compatriots led armed rebellion against the United States.
Dr. King stood for non-violent protest against unjust laws, and at no time called for an overthrow of the government.
Without question, the events of “01–06” have now given us a far more accurate comparison to the Confederacy. Donald Trump is now more comparable to Jefferson Davis than any American leader in the past 100 years. And the insurrectionist actors and sympathizers, are our new emboldened Confederacy.
But friends, make no mistake: a part of their learning — the education of these contemporary White traitors to America — came from this willing conflation of Dr. King with Confederate insurrection. This unconscious and unhealthy analogy, and false equivalency, minimized Dr. King’s work and legacy, while simultaneously morally licensing White People to keep “Lost Cause” mythology alive.
It is not an accident that — for the first in our history — White people waved a Confederate flag through the halls of Congress, two weeks ago.
That happened, in part, because of this continuing — sometimes intentional, sometimes unconscious — conflation of Dr. King with American traitors for the past sixty years.
White America Taught Me To Minimize Dr. King’s Successors and Successes.
White America taught me to laugh at Shirley Chisholm. This derision is so complete, very few contemporary Americans today even know who she was. White America taught me to deride Jesse Jackson as an opportunist who soiled and tarnished Dr. King’s legacy. To be crystal clear, White Democrats were a major part of both these derisions. Yes, we must name this.
Republicans, of course, simply ignored issues of race and social justice. For decades, and into the present day, they sit on their hands, pharisaically pointing back their supposed key role in passing Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s.
”Lord, we thank you,” they continue to say, “that our 60s Republicans were not like these 60s Democrats…”
As they float and repeat this last talking point among their “base” — thereby inviting current White Republicans to nurse an overblown sense of their forebearer’s moral role in Civil Rights — their party has actively courted racists through “The Southern Strategy” of the 1970s and 1980s, and engaged in harmful “Voter Protections” strategies and myths today. (I urge you to watch “Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook” on this last point…)
One of the most twisted parts of White America’s misuse of Dr. King are conservatives who continue to appeal to his legacy, while actively supporting a political party that engages in these last two political strategies.
For me, personally — as I’ve written about previously — Jackson’s presidential runs in the late 1980s were seminal. Jackson was the first Democrat I ever voted for, and his vision of the “Rainbow Coalition,” I will continue to remind you, is THE path forward for America. It’s a 40-year-old vision, still unrealized.
But we are on the cusp of it now. Every single Presidential election, save one, since 1996 has been won by the Democratic candidate and a coalition of voters that looks remarkably like Jackson’s original “Rainbow Coalition.” But, to this day, it seems to be very little acknowledgement of this truth, or anyone who consciously traces it back to the successors of Dr. King, such as Jackson and Chisolm.
Dr. King’s “successes” are also minimized and discarded.
White America only ever tepidly embraced The Great Society, complaining all the while about “takers” and “welfare cheats,” before abandoning it all together. (And in this, ignored the factual evidence that it was working…)
White America proudly quotes Dr. King’s “dream” of Black and White children playing together, but actively fought the integration of public schools, and to this day has never really taken seriously the call to dismantle White Supremacy.
White America kept alive a fear of Black men, through the meme of “Willie Horton,” and foolish terms like “Superpredator.” (Please note the bipartisan White American blame here…)
In short, at just the moment when Dr. King’s “successes” were being codified into law, White America fought against these laws. White America minimized both the spiritual and moral underpinnings of these laws, and also minimized and demeaned the role of government in enforcing them.
The entire Conservative enterprise of “smaller government” is not simply a philosophical point of view, it’s also been a practical strategy for dismantling, delaying, and denying the government programs which trace their origins to the time of Dr. King’s social activism.
However, today we note two significant cultural milestones. This week, we will have our first Black Woman Vice-President. This week, the successor to Dr. King’s actual pulpit becomes a US Senator. These are both real, and metaphorical, moments for White America to understand.
White America, these changes you have so long fought are eventually inevitable. They will, and are, happening now, with or without you.
What White America has taught us about Dr. Kings successors and successes must be discarded for a truer view of where are going and who America will be.
White America Taught Me To Selectively Read Dr. King
There is little doubt this is true, and every year on this weekend people note this fact.
White Americans — of all political parties — love to quote Dr. King. I myself love to quote Dr. King. But, White America loves to quote Dr. King on “peace” and “love,” and fails to quote him on “justice” and “action.” As such, the vision of Dr. King that White Americans carry in their heads is dangerously out of balance.
I can only encourage White America to do the following:
1. Read and quote more of “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and less of “I Have A Dream.”
Understand that the former is written to you, me, and all of us…and is remarkably prescient, even today.
2. Read and quote Dr. King from the LATE 1960s, not the early. By the late 1960s, Dr. King was embracing a broader vision of social justice that is much needed still today. He had courageously opposed Vietnam. He was actively planning “The Poor People’s March.” This latter point is not to be missed.
When King died, this vision of a Poor People’s Campaign was dealt a horrible blow. It is only now being rebuilt through the powerful work of leaders like Dr. William Barber. That campaign visioned a multiracial coalition that brought together people of all races. Black people in urban centers, and White people in Appalachia. Of all the dreams that “died” or fractured in the wake of King’s assassination, this one has been the most harmful to our nation.
Again, we White Americans had a chance to create these kinds of coalition through the work of Jesse Jackson. We didn’t take that chance.
Then, we had the hope of an actual Black President in Barack Obama. Instead, we wasted that time on stupid and unfounded “birthirism” on the Right, and foolish crowing about a mythical “Post-Racial America” on the Left.
Our selected reading of Dr. King has been incredibly dangerous, not just for Black Americans, but also for White Americans too.
White America Taught Me Political Non-Violence Is Optional
This is self-obvious after the events of “01–06.”
But it had been obvious long before.
*White America taught me that the political violence of police brutality was always acceptable, when applied to African-Americans.
*White America taught me that the violence of mass incarceration was reasonable, so long as it was justified as a deterrent to crime.
*White America taught me to focus on the relatively few incidents of violence in “Black Lives Matter” protests, rather than the millions of peaceful protestors in the streets, literally marching in the legacy of Dr. King’s non-violence action.
*White America…as they have done with King, Chisholm, Jackson, Obama…continues to change the subject and engages in harmful “whataboutisms” to avoid looking deeply at their own racial culpability both now and in the past.
And, finally and most chillingly, White America — far too much of it, in my opinion — is currently justifying and coddling mostly White domestic insurrectionists who tried to overtake our government and murder its leaders.
White America — far too much of it, in my opinion — is excusing their behavior, and refusing to look at their words and actions that morally licensing that event. This excusing and licensing, of course, is also directly tied to the false and distorted things White America teaches, and has taught, all of us about Dr. King.
Let me boil it down:
White America appears to be fine with violence when Police are harming Black bodies.
White America also seems to be fine with White People beating Cops with “Thin Blue Line” flags.
(Meditate very deeply on both the metaphorical and literal truth of these last two sentences…)
It doesn’t make any sense.
It doesn’t have to.
White People clearly believe — not just through historical examples of decades ago, but through our contemporary actions today — that Dr. King’s political non-violence is optional.
— — — — — — — — — — — — —
You will note that, throughout this essay, I have not quoted one line of Dr. King’s actual words. That’s intentional.
My goal today is not to idealize the words of Dr. King, but to demythologize the LESSONS we White Americans have taken from him.
Some of these lessons, as you have no doubt now surmised, turn the actual words and legacy of Dr. King on their heads. Some of them have, incredibly, been used to justify the continuing coddling and support of White Supremacists in America over the past few decades, and into our current day.
One of the deep learnings I’ve had this past twenty years, is to not speak “on behalf of” others….People of Color…the LGBTQ community…Immigrants…Women. I’ve learned, and relearned that I have a place as an ally with these groups, but not a place to speak for them. This is hard lesson I continually relearn.
More recently, I’ve started to take hard looks at the lessons I carry forward of me…most of which was taught to me by White America. That’s why this essay doesn’t talk about the actual Dr King, but instead tries to address what we White People seem to believe about him.
So, on this King Holiday, dear White America, don’t just throw out random quotes from King, or spend your time doing a service project. Look back at your own life, as I have tried to do here, and take seriously what you learned, and what you have not learned, about Dr. King during your life’s course.
Most of it, for far too many of us, comes to us distorted through the lens of our own White point of view.
Get to know what Dr. King actually said. Especially his later writings.
Listen quietly and carefully to what African-Americans can teach you about his legacy today.
Understand that his vision is still deeply important today, if America is yet to survive.
But must to come to terms with what White America taught us about him in the first place.