The Reimagination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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.

14 thoughts on “The Reimagination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. Tom Kirkendall

    Martin Luther King, as well as Frederick Douglass in the nineteenth century, were able to distinguish the principles of the United States from its compromises—i.e., the truth that justice will be forever approximated but never achieved, “the more perfect union” of the Constitution that suggests that we have a miraculous thing that we nevertheless must always strive to make better. They understood the importance of relying on those principles as the solid foundation on which to make progress toward a more just world. Their underlying message was “now live up to these principles,” not to tear them down.

  2. Miles

    What’s shocking for anyone over 50 is that a colorblind society was the progressive goal for decades, until it suddenly became racist. How the hell did that happen? It’s nuts.

    1. Tom Kirkendall

      Mostly just politics. Before the progressive goal was a colorblind society, progressives supported (or at least did not vigorously oppose) segregation to cement the FDR coalition that included minorities and Southern Democrats. Societal pressure post-WWII in favor of equal opportunity for all races promoted the progressive’s embrace of the colorblind society to preserve minority support. And the more recent societal tilt toward equal entitlement has fueled the progressive view that society is comprised of various groups that are either an oppressor or an oppressee.

  3. Jake

    My goodness! Who are these ‘anti-racists’ scheming to ‘put the boot on the neck of another?’ I want to go to their website and leave a comment that lets them know what I think of them on MLK day.

      1. Jake

        From the perspective of an actual radical woke leftist, a perfect response, in context. Happy MLK Day, my friend.

  4. Elpey P.

    Now that “woke” has been corporatized and militarized and commodified and co-opted by the same power structures MLK fought against, and the modern civil rights movement has taken over the hegemonic function and cultural space once occupied by Christianity, MLK would probably be about as pissed off as Christ would upon coming back and seeing what his movement has become. Yet people are still historically naive enough to get fleeced by platitudes that the new and improved American Identitarianism has become capitalism’s new favorite pastime.

    1. F. Lee Billy

      “…fleeced by platitudes that the new and improved American identitarianism has become capitalism’s new favorite pastime.”

      Gee, I wish I’d said that. There’s a 600 -page book in my library: Capital in the Twenty-First Century, T. Pickett y, Belknap, 2014. Am never going to read; however,am now incentivized to jump to the end and read the Conclusion. Thanx a bunch Elpey.

  5. RTM

    And I doubt he’d have changed his other views:

    A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.

    Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence, Delivered April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, NYC

  6. DeJon

    … “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.

    —SHG, Citation needed

    This is the type of low-brow thinking borne of a self-righteous mind that has lost all intellectual curiosity. It is ignorant, self-righteous dreck.

    I often wonder if your unfettered gusto is inspiring an entire generation of ignorant rich people to say whatever stupid thoughts come to their mind.

    1. Miles

      DeJon calls it stupid isn’t as strong an argument as DeJon feels it is.

      If DeJon has an actual thought, he could have expressed it. He didn’t.

      1. DeJon

        Miles, appreciate your feedback. However, this is a community of the deaf of and dumb here to fap and preen. I’ll save my best for a better venue.

  7. Erik H

    MLK was a great man. But every year, I wonder why we spend so much of our time debating the proxy of “what did MLK mean; and who has the moral authority to quote or apply his views” instead of “what should we do about racism right now, today?”

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