The Whitewashing of MLK
How a Black radical was warped into an establishment figure
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Enjoy your holiday. In Solidarity — Joe
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the national holiday commemorating the birthday of the acclaimed civil rights icon. While Dr. King is celebrated in every aspect of society, with sports teams, Fortune 500 companies, and even the FBI paying tribute, the depiction of MLK that America honors is far departed from the man.
Through a deliberate practice of misrepresentation and omission, America’s political and cultural establishment has whitewashed Dr. King into an acceptable, moderate figure whose celebration does not pose a threat to their position. It is this version of Dr. King that the United States loves to praise, for two reasons. First, his preference for nonviolent civil disobedience and willingness to engage with electoralism, such as his support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, reinforces the notion that America’s systemic problems can be solved through the established legislative structure. This helps dissuade Americans from seeking political solutions outside the two-party system, such as labor or community organizing. Second, much like the Founding Fathers are honored for winning American independence, celebrating Dr. King gives the impression that he completed his mission. Positioning him as the victorious leader of the civil rights movement implies systemic racism is over, having gone the way of chattel slavery and Jim Crow. (Congrats everyone! We did it!)
While it’s true Dr. King preached non-violence and worked legislatively to advance the antiracist cause, the constructed image of him as an establishment figure drastically reduces the scope of his life’s work. Not only is this reduction insulting to him and the thousands that comprised his movement, but it hinders us from achieving Dr. King’s true goal: the emancipation of the oppressed from lasting systems of oppression.
Dr. King’s nonviolent approach is often contrasted against the more radical, violent arm of the civil rights movement, represented by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. While today’s telling posits these wings as opposed to one another, with the peaceful branch eventually “winning,” this is not the case. Many factors contributed to the creation and success of the non-violent faction: personal pacifism, religious beliefs, and a disciplined strategy — Dr. King knew images of unarmed protestors being attacked by police dogs and sprayed with firehoses would win over public sentiment. But the picture of Dr. King as staunchly opposed to anything more radical or disruptive — namely the tactics of Malcolm X — is an ahistorical, racist manipulation. In 1965, Dr. King gave an interview to Playboy that was twisted to give the impression he was opposed to other ways of doing things. In the printed interview, Playboy quoted King saying:
“I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice. Fiery demagogic oratory in the black ghettoes, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.”
The “disservice” line would be quoted in Dr. King’s biographies, cementing itself as “fact.” But he never said it. When re-reading the original transcripts of the interview, author Jonathan Eig discovered that Playboy had changed Dr. King’s words. He actually said:
“I have met Malcolm X, but circumstances didn't enable me to talk with him for more than a minute. I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views, as I understand them. He is very articulate, as you say. I don't want to seem to sound as if I feel so self-righteous, or absolutist, that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer. But I know that I have so often felt that I wished that he would talk less of violence, because I don't think that violence can solve our problem. And in his litany of expressing the despair of the Negro, without offering a positive, creative approach, I think that he falls into a rut sometimes."
In reality, King politely stated he disagreed with Malcolm X’s violent approach but acknowledged it might hold “some of the answers.” The deliberate changing of Dr. King’s words, followed by reiterating them until they became a cudgel to be wielded against other forms of Black liberation is one of many offenses in the multi-generational whitewashing of the civil rights pioneer.
And while Dr. King was a staunch proponent of electoralism, making voting rights a pinnacle of his campaign, we should not forget that this was only a segment of his action. Action outside the political realm, such as marches, sit-ins, protests, and boycotts, many of which were illegal, were linchpins of his campaign. He even refused to condemn riots, rightfully calling them “the language of the unheard.”
“A riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
Yes, electoralism was a great and effective part of the civil rights movement. But the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and other anti-racist legislation was the goal line push — a final effort built upon decades of illegal, unpopular, and disruptive action that directly challenged the American status quo.
The Continued Fight
Today, the statues, commercials, and commemorations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. frame him as a conquering hero, looking out over the crowd like Caesar over his army.
On its face, this iconography is wonderful. It celebrates a Black icon in a country that has suppressed them for centuries. But under the surface, it carries a sinister message, giving the impression that Dr. King’s work is “complete” — racism has been solved, and any lasting discrepancies between America’s White and Black populations are the fault of individual choices. As systemic racism and other injustices are not over, claiming that they are opened the door to reactionary backlash and racial regression.
In the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby v. Holder, the Court gutted key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a key component of Dr. King’s work. In his concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the law no longer needed to be fully enforced, as the country was no longer racist.
“Today, our Nation has changed. The conditions that originally justified [the Voting Rights Act] no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions. As the Court explains: ‘Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”
Thomas is saying that because Black Americans have voting rights in modern America, it’s okay to end the Voting Rights Act. This is preposterous, as the Act was the reason Black people could vote. (This is as nonsensical as stopping medicine because it’s helping a patient heal.) Unfortunately, this practice is not limited to a sole crackpot justice. Politicians of both parties misrepresent Dr. King’s full mission, not only his goal to achieve full parity between Black and White Americans but to change the economic conditions that perpetuated and benefited from the racism he was fighting. In a series of speeches and letters seldom printed in America’s history textbooks, Dr. King made it clear he viewed capitalism as a key component of the system he was fighting against.
“I am convinced that capitalism has seen its best days in America, and not only in America, but in the entire world. It is a well known fact that no social institution can survive when it has outlived its usefulness. This, capitalism has done. It has failed to meet the needs of the masses.” - 1951
“I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic .” - 1952
“We must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.’ When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…” - 1967
“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”- 1961
It is clear the real Dr. King, not the whitewashed version we celebrate today, had a post-capitalist component to his work. The U.S. could pass every anti-racist law he proposed, but if the system of private ownership of capital and wage labor continued, Black (and White) Americans would continue to wither in poverty.
When examining the current state of both racial and economic justice, it is undeniable that Dr. King’s mission is not complete. The racial wealth gap is still as large as it was when Dr. King was murdered, while the wealth gap between rich and poor continues to worsen. From both a racial and economic perspective, we have work to do.
But today is a holiday, and holidays are for celebration. So, let us celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he was; a radical who saw the status quo as a grave offense of humanity, and dedicated his life to fighting it — civility be damned. Let’s cherish his goal of a world free from oppression and let it propel us into this new year with renewed optimism and drive.
Happy MLK Day, everyone.
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