The celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. takes place this year amidst political chaos. In particular, it is occurring in the middle a weeks-long government shutdown that has pitted President Donald Trump, the leader of a party that is 90 percent white, against the most diverse Congress in American history over an idea that has been derided as racist and xenophobic.
Praise for Dr. King’s legacy will emerge from this partisan rancor. Rather than invoke unity, however, such praise exposes a difficult truth: King's legacy has become as segregated as the country he tried to heal.
For white people, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. exists mainly as a mainstream portrayal of a saint of redemption.
For white people, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. exists mainly as a mainstream portrayal of a saint of redemption. In this historical interpretation, Dr. King saved both black and white Americans from the evils of segregation, while overcoming the resistance of a few, powerful bigoted individuals with little more than dignified protest and the strength of his convictions.
This Dr. King tells us that hate cannot drive out hate, that we should judge each other on the content of our characters, and that poverty and racism are their own evils. This Dr. King does not think us wrong as long as we do not have hate in our heart, doesn’t want us to dwell on each other’s differences and knows that what hurts white people also hurts black people. This Dr. King does not judge. This Dr. King does not see color. He does not ask for reparations. His solitary request is to act with love.
This incomplete and inconsiderate legacy fuels the agendas of white people across the political spectrum, from open white supremacists to apathetic “allies.” Built from scraps of reality selected from his words and work, this imagined Dr. King does not endorse or exalt — it absolves.
His sentiments of love, peace and unity transform into excuses for indulging hatred, injustice and oppression; loving our enemies becomes a commandment to forgive all trespasses. This is how Congressman Steve King, who in November suggested that Dr. King’s legacy has been “hijacked” into a “grievance committee” by the Congressional Black Caucus, can turn around and defend white supremacy in January without any sense of irony.
Seeking peace becomes a call against any and all confrontation, direct or symbolic. This is how national politicians from both parties can receive more attention for condemning the public discomfort of their peers than in seeking the safety of the citizens in their care. Dr. King's imagining of an integrated world becomes enough to draw focus away from the marginalized and exculpate the racism of the majority. This is how a progressive voice can tout civil rights bona fides and yet so easily cleave a space between the politics of identity and the concerns of citizenship.
It is true that Dr. King did seek, coordinate and give partnership to white communities, speak about equality for all as the solution for the suffering of all and give voice to the redeeming power of love and the tactical strength of non-violence. It is not a false legacy or one that should be ignored or diminished.
But too often the power of that legacy is used by white voices to minimize the systemic violence of racism, sow complacency and resentment at majoritarian sacrifice and to characterize the work of his life as complete rather than abandoned. Rather than shine a light on the ways our society has fallen short of its incredible promise, past and present, the brilliance of Dr. King’s aspirations are used to make invisible the perpetrators of common violence, the silent disapproval of white moderates and the disparities in income, housing, justice and mortality that have become no less acute with time.
It also has the power to render invisible another legacy: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., martyr.
This is a voice and a vision which channeled the efforts of thousands to speak to the suffering of millions. This legacy remembers that it was not the warming hearts of the white South but the shame of white Northerners that paved the way for civil rights legislation. When the latter could no longer be shamed, the legislation stopped. This legacy does not whitewash the violence endured; the bodies cold and burned and flayed and buried, unguarded by self-defense; the practice of love towards all not merely for moral strength but for sheer survival.
This Dr. King is not an immortal sage but a man dead before his 40th birthday, leaving a widow and four children.
On this side of Dr. King’s segregated legacy, his aspirations for all Americans are as cherished as the black singularity of his radicalism, and his words are not shields of absolution but calls to self-actualization.
While de jure segregation has ended in 2019, de facto segregation in areas like economic mobility, education and environmental resources continues to thwart the possibilities of his dream. The country remains mired in both inequality and violence. But it is not impossible to imagine a world in which his two legacies are compatible; where we ignore neither personal animus nor systemic dehumanization; where we act against injustice without compromise; and where we agree by consensus rather than fiat when his vision is complete. It is a country where Dr. King’s legacies are integrated into the truth.