The commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday resonates differently this year. The celebration of perhaps the most important civil rights leader in American history takes place against the backdrop of a White supremacist insurrection against the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6. The desecration of the citadel of democracy triggered the unprecedented second impeachment of a sitting U.S. president, underscoring the perilous nature of American civic life almost 53 years after King’s assassination.
America most comfortably embraced King after his April 4, 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tenn. The site of King’s death, the Lorraine Motel balcony, is now a civil rights museum. King found himself in Memphis supporting over one thousand Black sanitation workers on strike for a living wage that spring. He came to Memphis as part of a national mobilizing effort for a Poor People’s Campaign that endeavored to peacefully occupy Washington, D.C, until Congress guaranteed every American a job or universal basic income. King recruited a multiracial army of the poor—from Black sharecroppers to Mexican farmworkers to White Appalachians—to showcase the depth and breadth of racial and economic injustice in American society.
On Jan. 18, join Dr. Peniel Joseph and Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, president of Huston-Tillotson University, at 11.30 Central to discuss Joseph’s book, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. To join, register here.
Most Americans know more about King’s speech at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963 than his radical peace activism, bold critique of White supremacy, and passionate advocacy to rid the nation of the triple evils of militarism, racism, and materialism. But we ignore the radical aspects of the “I Have a Dream” speech too. In that speech King implored the nation to make real the promise of democracy. He openly confronted the “vicious racists” in the state of Alabama, publicly rebuked Mississippi as a place “sweltering with the heat” of racial oppression, and castigated southern governors whose lips were dripping with the treasonous phrases of “nullification and interposition” that harkened back to antebellum era defense of racial slavery. King balanced his dream that freedom might come to places such as Stone Mountain, Georgia, the 1915 birthplace of the reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan and physical monument to White supremacy with the knowledge that civil rights activists were going to have to “go to jail together” to confront Jim Crow’s political and moral violence.
So much of the last four years of the Age of Trump have found the nation grappling with lessons unlearned from America during the King years. King challenged myths of American exceptionalism by confronting the links between war and Black poverty, police brutality and urban rebellion, economic injustice and racial capitalism.
In the Age of Black Lives Matter conservative opponents of racial justice often used King to decry the tone and tenor of protests against police brutality, seemingly unaware that America’s Apostle of Nonviolence confronted police brutality, experienced humiliating arrests, and faced down White mobs from Mississippi to Chicago. King challenged the nation to explore the roots behind escalating urban unrest during the 1960s, noting that riots were the “language of the unheard.”
2020’s year of racial justice protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder took place alongside perhaps the most racially divisive presidential election in American history, tensions amplified by a health pandemic that disproportionately impacted Black and communities of color in the U.S. An estimated 15-26 million Americans took to the streets to declare that “Black Lives Matter” in the largest social justice demonstration in the nation’s history. King’s spirit imbued the bulk of these non-violent demonstrations, yet he would not have been surprised by those that experienced violence from police, protesters, or provocateurs since he experienced aspects of such violence in Selma, Ala., Chicago, Ill., Canton, Miss., and Memphis, Tenn.
King remained defiantly hopeful in the prospect of democratic renewal his entire life. We owe it to his legacy to remain defiantly optimistic even as we pragmatically recognize the stark challenges that lay ahead for the nation. The Jan. 5 election of Rev. Raphael Warnock, who presides over King’s former pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, to the U.S. Senate from Georgia offers reason for more than hope. Pastor Warnock ran in the tradition of King’s call for us to build a Beloved Community against all odds. His support and advocacy for the 33-year-old Jewish candidate Jon Ossoff, helped to reinvigorate a Black-Jewish alliance around civil rights and racial justice that had remained dormant for too long. The fact that a Black pastor in Atlanta, Georgia has become the first Black person elected to the Senate from Georgia is not miraculous but an example of the kind of grassroots organizing and political mobilizing that King contributed to during his lifetime.
America needs to embrace the radical King who marched alongside Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) in the Mississippi heat in 1966 and the revolutionary King who spoke out against the Vietnam War now more than ever. That King so loved America in all of its imperfections enough to vow to wage a “bitter…but beautiful struggle” to redeem this nation’s soul. Like an Old Testament prophet buoyed by a doggedly resilient faith King courageously spoke truth to power even in the face of faltering White support, a fractured relationship with the president, and criticism from former friends that he had gone too far.
After King’s death in 1968 America lay at a crossroads. We find ourselves at a similar place now. Then, instead of embracing King’s Beloved Community the nation struck the ruinous path toward “Law and Order,” investing in system of incarceration, punishment, and containment over investing in the lives of Black people.
The victory of Rev. Warnock in Georgia on Jan. 5 offers one vision of American democracy even as the White riot at the Capitol represents a powerful and growing threat to achieving the Beloved Community that King devoted his life to achieving.
King’s vision of Black radical citizenship resonates now more than ever. He defined citizenship as not simply the mere absence of racial oppression but the visible appearance of justice in policies that guaranteed voting rights, racial integration in schools and neighborhoods, housing affordability, food justice, healthcare, and a safe environment. This Martin Luther King Jr. Day let us all dedicate 2021 (the year and not the day) to ending systemic racism, defeating White supremacy, and finally achieving a racially just country.
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