There are few people whose words are seized upon to make arguments they never made, never intended, never believed, more than MLK. The reason why is obvious, as they were so respected and revered that the influence of an appeal from authority was undeniable. The problem is that they aren’t here to refute the motives and meanings put into their mouths.
And, indeed, if they were here, perhaps they would have approved of the ideas others impute to them, but it’s disingenuous to use their memory, their words spoken more than 50 years ago, in a different world, with different understandings and different problems, than are now perceived.
It’s not that I know what MLK would have said, would have thought, had his life not been snuffed out on a balcony at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis in 1968. Perhaps he would be proud to see how much he had accomplished given that massive shift in racial attitude and action between then and now. Perhaps he would have been disappointed at how much of his message had been lost in the ensuing years. Perhaps he would have been shocked to learn that racial hatred still existed despite his efforts and the massive shifts in societal attitudes.
But was Martin Luther King “woke” in the sense of the word used today?
[Martin Luther King’s last sermon] was entitled, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” and although King doesn’t say the word “woke,” he uses the concept as it was understood by many Black folks then, well before the term was co-opted by the political right to refer to any left-leaning policy that it wanted to condemn.
This was neither “woke” as understood today, nor should the omission of the word being initially adopted by the left before becoming the target of criticism of the political right, as well as most of the left that rejected its authoritarianism, its denigration of principle, its intolerance toward anyone who failed to be an enthusiastic supplicant to its commands.
This effort to shoehorn a sermon where the word “awake” was uttered to reinvent his rhetoric using the transitory language of the moment is about as honest as arguing that anyone antifa hated must be a fascist because that’s what its name said, or that the Nazis were socialists. And yet, that’s what Esau McCaulley attempts to do, as if no one will notice or question his game.
The sermon is an opportunity to encounter the real King, who is too often obfuscated by politicians who use his legacy to support their own agendas. They contend that King was “colorblind,” when in fact his policy aims were unapologetically color-conscious.
It is undoubtedly wrong for political opponents on the right to falsely use MLK’s words for their own purposes. It is similarly wrong when it is done by those who purport to adore him and support him. It’s not that MLK “was ‘colorblind’,” but that he hoped for a future that would be colorblind. At the time he spoke of his dream, black people were racially oppressed, both de facto and de jure, and his goal was to end this burden under which black people in America suffered.
MLK never argued that America should be reinvented into a nation where black people should be given primacy over white people, where the roles should be reversed and anyone should be burdened because of race. And this notion of a colorblind future, where every person would be judged by the content of his character, was at the core of liberal efforts to eradicate racism for generations.
Of course he was color conscious at a time when black people were openly discriminated against based on the color of their skin, but his purpose was to end that discrimination so that there would be no need for color consciousness in a nation where race was never given a thought, never mattered one way or another. That’s not at all the understanding promoted today by the anti-racists, for whom racial discrimination is flipped on its head and no one can be anti-racist against blacks without being flagrantly racist against others. At no time, ever, did MLK extol the virtue of racism, either as an appropriate way to exist or as a weapon in the hands of black people and their allies.
King believed that too many Americans, especially those in its churches, were also snoozing through a time ripe for transformation. They needed to wake up to the injustice all around them and make demands for change.
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, MLK admonished his fellow clergymen for their calls for order, their criticism of his direct nonviolent action to challenge the oppression of black people.
You may well ask, “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.
My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without legal and nonviolent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.
Martin Luther King fought to get the boot off the neck of the black person, not to put the boot on the neck of anyone else. Perhaps if he were alive today, he would embrace the woke vision of social justice, he would not dream of a colorblind society but of one where race was flipped on its head and black people took charge. It may be hard to imagine given all he wrote and said, but it’s possible. But to claim it when it was never said is to dishonor Martin Luther King’s memory and work.