There was a time when the narratives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement’s heroes belonged to us, Black people. After Dr. King’s stock went public in 1986, the first year of the national holiday, that all changed. If you want to witness the fruits of White supremacy’s labor, pay close attention to how America honors Dr. King. Politicians, public schools, and White evangelicals have mastered the art of celebrating Dr. King without acknowledging his Blackness or the blood on White America’s hands. From state capitals and classrooms to pulpits, he has been deftly portrayed as America’s most revered colorless champion for freedom, fighting against the concepts of hatred and injustice. Dr. King’s Blackness and White America’s responsibility have been erased through the misinterpretation of “I Have A Dream,” while completely ignoring the anti-war, America condemning sentiments of “Beyond Vietnam”; cherry-picking his quotes that speak of love instead of reciting those which lay the blame of generational poverty, racism and violence at the feet of White America; or revising history to make him the beloved, misunderstood outcast rather than the despised Black leader who died from an assassin’s bullet.
Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement declared war on the United States of America’s treatment of Black Americans! That sentence is too important to write just once. Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement declared war on the United States of America’s treatment of Black Americans. And make no mistake about it, Dr. King and all participants in the Civil Rights Movement, adult or child, were treated like enemy combatants by the American government. Southern law enforcement harassed, imprisoned, murdered, and turned a blind eye to the KKK’s terroristic activities in order to destroy the movement. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI infiltrated, surveilled, blackmailed, and used propaganda in order to destroy the movement. None these tactics worked, but they are rarely, if ever, mentioned on MLK Day or any other day, for that matter. That erasure is exactly how the historical accuracy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement has been destroyed.
I am the son and grandson of people who were born and raised colored in America. If you want an in-depth understanding of what it meant to be colored in America, go watch Eyes on the Prize. But here is a brief definition: Colored in America meant living with the reality that your life could come to a horrific end at any moment because the American government did not protect colored lives from White violence. Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement boycotted, marched and died to move my generation of Black people closer to equality and justice. Before there was an MLK Holiday, Black folks shared the unedited stories of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. The violence: Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and four little girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church. The victories: March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Acts. These stories became part of me, my Blackness, my humanity.
I was a seventh grader when America celebrated the first MLK Day. That was when I realized that I did not recognize the Dr. King or Civil Rights Movement White folks were celebrating. White people had constructed a Dr. King and Civil Rights Movement narrative that were palatable for them. It was a narrative that highlighted White protagonists and made little or no mention of any White antagonists. In fact, I was mentoring in a classroom in which a White educator had the gall to label Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party as Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest enemies.
White evangelical hero Vice President Pence using Dr. King to justify financing a wall is what happens when the stories of our heroes are in the hands of our enemies. White feminist hero Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg criticizing Colin Kaepernick’s protest is what happens when the stories of our heroes are in the hands of our enemies. Freedom fighter Angela Davis being denied a civil rights award in her hometown is what happens when the stories of our heroes are in the hands of our enemies. The responsibility of ending the deliberate miseducation of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement is Black people’s responsibility. These are our heroes and our stories.