Martin Luther King Jr. was a great man with a great vision. He sought to create an equitable world in which race was not a factor in human worth. But the real MLK is not the same one we learned about in school. He has become a white-washed and more palatable version of his true self. This historical figure was a socialist and more radical than history books love to portray. But we need to decenter from MLK, not only so that we can we get back to his radical roots, but to also spotlight other great civil rights leaders.
If you were schooled in the United States, you heard tales of MLK, Rosa Parks, some Malcolm X, and possibly Stokely Carmichael. But how many folks have heard of James Baldwin? Not very many. He was a black, queer man who brought both novels and an intersectional approach to the Civil Rights Movement. How about Fred Hampton, a leading member of the Black Panthers? The list of unsung heroes of the civil rights movements goes on and on. The thing these leaders have in common is that the media cannot find a way to white-wash or pacify their images to make them more palatable to White America.
The story of Rosa Parks is a perfect example of the pacification and reshaping of the Civil Rights Movement. The history we are taught in school is that she was older woman who was tired after work and refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus. This story is incomplete; Rosa Parks was a trained activist. Rosa Parks was the secretary for the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP. Before her defining act of defiance on a bus in Montgomery, she had attended the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for training activists for workers’ rights and racial equality. This creates a different slant from what we know of Rosa Parks based on history books.
Dr. King’s story has also been changed. One of the major things to note about MLK was his anti-capitalist rhetoric. He read Marx and believed in dissolving the capitalist economic structure that the United States and the Western world has built up. He espoused the belief that capitalism was part of the violence of the system and was a tool in perpetuating racism. How much of that rhetoric is used when talking about MLK during celebrations of his life? Not much, if any.
The changes to the radicalism of Dr. King make him a more palatable figure to White America, a community which has never truly been able to accept figures who seek to destroy inequality-perpetuating systems. The government has admitted, through a civil trial on behalf of Coretta Scott King, that they had King assassinated. They took their murder of King a step further by changing his legacy to fit their needs. King is now used as a champion of nonviolence and as a way to silence today’s modern, radical black activists. Just look at the way many media sources and government officials quoted King as a way of trying to quell the Ferguson protesters. In response to them, many activists pulled out this King quote: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” This is just one example of the MLK that the government and white supremacist structures do not want the people to listen to.
Most of the need to decenter from MLK is actually to get back to what Dr. King was actually about. Media and this holiday has sought to pacify MLK, make him more palatable to white folks, and rewrite the history of the civil rights movements. By moving away from the Reverend’s image and speaking about the radicals of the Civil Rights Movement we can actually spotlight how radical he was; by moving away from MLK we can actually get back to him.