Maybe some year the time will come when Martin Luther King Day doesn’t require this reminder: Martin Luther King Jr. was not just a collection of warm cuddly quotes about children holding hands, judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He did not exist so that one day, white people might rebuke the Black Lives Matter movement for not being sufficiently King-like. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a radical and he was widely hated for it during his lifetime, even as—or because—he led a movement that changed the United States of America.
Like I say, there’s no new information here. But it requires constant reminders, because every time he is in the news, every time there is an anniversary or a remembrance, we’re offered a revisionist history of who King was and what he represented, one that focuses on his dream that “little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers” but refuses to recognize that “the fierce urgency of now” is still with us, that now in 2019 there is still a fierce urgency. The King we’re told to remember wouldn’t have said that “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” but the real King said it in that very same “dream” speech.
What’s more, in an earlier speech about his dreams, at the 1961 AFL-CIO convention, King offered up “A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.” Do you think we have that? Do you think that a King who continued talking about “privilege and property widely distributed”—or a King who spoke out against war—or a King who showed up to support striking low-wage workers—would have the likes of Donald Trump or Scott Walker or white supremacist Rep. Steve King quoting him in a positive light? No, Republicans—and all too many white Democrats—like Martin Luther King Jr. because he died a long time ago and can be watered down in the retelling, used as a morality tale for a morality that’s distinctly not his.
This Martin Luther King Day, remember the radical King. He’s really not that hard to find, even if you have to look beyond the memes.