Martin Luther King Jr. Day is America’s most important holiday. It is the only holiday in which America is forced to honestly assess its racial history. Dr. King’s life is a microcosm of how America deals with race. Because when you celebrate Dr. King’s fight for freedom and justice, it removes America’s cloak of moral exceptionalism and exposes her blood-soaked hands of genocide.
While it has been convenient for children’s coloring books and public school textbooks to depict Dr. King as the “I Have a Dream” guy, a more in-depth analysis reveals America’s true colors. Dr. King encouraged civil disobedience against Jim Crow laws and criticized the Vietnam War as unChristian. For his activism, Dr. King was brutalized by the police; spied on by the FBI; branded a communist by politicians; vilified by most White Christians; and murdered by an assassin. In American classrooms, the simplistic “I Have a Dream” caricature is more preferred than delving into an historically accurate discussion of what occurs when a person of color challenges America’s White supremacist ideology.
After Dr. King’s death, one would believe that America would correct the error of her ways. That belief would be incorrect. When confronted with questions of race or religion, White America has continually supplied the wrong answer: Apartheid? Mandela is a terrorist. Black Lives Matter? They hate police. Undocumented citizens? Build a wall. Muslim immigrants? Only allow Christian immigrants into the country. America’s response to those questions confirms that the warm blankets of racism and xenophobia are still this nation’s place of refuge.
America was built on the pillars of White supremacy. Despite all the historical and empirical evidence supporting that premise, most Caucasian Americans will never admit that. They will couch the genocide of Africans and Native Americans by their forefathers in language that separates the nation built from the methods used by its architects. Dr. King and other activists of color understood that distinction did not exist.
America wants to take that victory lap when it comes to race relations. They want to yell, “We have overcome,” at the top of their lungs, but when you can hear the racist spirits of Bull Connor, Governors George Wallace and Orval Faubus being resurrected in the campaigns of present-day politicians, America still has a great deal of work to do. If America wants to carry Dr. King’s torch of human dignity, denouncing racist demagoguery is mandatory.
On this day, America should take an account of her moral standing at home and abroad. The use of diplomacy is not a sign of weakness. Being responsible caretakers of our planet is not an extremist position. Demanding responsible gun ownership is not an infringement on anyone’s constitutional rights. Paying employees a living wage is not going to put employers out of business. Celebrating Dr. King is the promise of what America should be while fighting against what America has become accustomed to being. America murdered Dr. King because he would not accept his nation being anything less than what the Constitution guaranteed to everyone.