The #ReclaimMLK effort pushes back against the whitening of Dr. King’s legacy

Jenn M. Jackson

There were always two events while growing up that reminded me that blackness was an invisible thing to most White people. The first was the weird ways they addressed me during Black History Month like I was somehow uniquely qualified to comment on the celebratory period. The second was the annual reinvention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. each January in observance of his birthday on January 15th, 1929. So, when his birth and life turned into a “National Day of Service,” I was both perplexed and confused given the knowledge I had of King’s actual life.

An imperfect man who was once considered a “thug” and ‘un-American” by many at the time, King has now entered a place of revelry for many White people who would rather make his story their own than research what his work was truly about.

Now, I can’t say that Dr. King wouldn’t want Americans to support and perform community service in his name. In fact, this initiative is based on one of his most famous quotes where he states, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” But, the way many describe Dr. King and his federally recognized day suggests that this was all his life and activism were about.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service’s about page,

“Dr. King believed in a nation of freedom and justice for all, and encouraged all citizens to live up to the purpose and potential of America by applying the principles of nonviolence to make this country a better place to live—creating the Beloved Community. The MLK Day of Service is a way to transform Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and teachings into community action that helps solve social problems. That service may meet a tangible need, or it may meet a need of the spirit. On this day, Americans of every age and background celebrate Dr. King through service projects that strengthen communities, empower individuals, bridge barriers, and create solutions.”

This description leaves out that Dr. King was nonviolently fighting against White Supremacy and racial segregation in the South and pay inequity and poor working conditions in the North. It ignores that he engaged with the US government to ensure equal access to the ballot box for disenfranchised Black voters. It conveniently misses the point that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s work was critically animated by the ongoing White racsim and violence against Blacks in the United States.

I even performed a search on the page for the words “Black” and “Racism.” Each returned zero results. When I searched for “White,” I only had one hit. It was for the White House.

This type of colorblind description of Dr. King’s work makes it terribly convenient for Whites to never actually engage with their own racism and biases but feel like they are honoring Dr. King anyway. It enables many people who prefer not to interrogate their own complicity in ongoing racism in the United States to simply paint something or pick up trash or serve soup until they feel better about themselves.

We saw a similar effort to sterilize the legacies of Black leaders in 2013 when the Republican Party claimed that Rosa Parks “ended racism” when she chose not to vacate her seat in 1955. Rather than acknowledging that Parks’ work was seen as criminal, rowdy, and disruptive to whiteness, they attempted to appropriate her actions in ways which diluted her actual intentions while glossing over their very real commitment to racial hierarchy in the United States.

The efforts to sanitize these freedom fighters’ work into narratives that ease White guilt and erase the long historical arc of anti-blackness in this country are exactly why young organizers and activists have been working to make this day about Dr. King’s real contributions rather than the ones that have been hijacked for political or ideological reasons. The Chicago chapter of BYP100 spent the entire weekend organizing peaceful demostrations encouraging the city to disinvest from the police and invest instead in Black futures. Other chapters, including those in Washington DC and New York City, have similar actions planned in an effort to reclaim Dr. King’s legacy.

Frankly, I couldn’t be more pleased at the efforts to take back Dr. King’s day from those seeking to exploit it for their own devices. As a mother, I want more for my children than the isolating experiences I had on this day growing up.

More importantly though, I think we owe our Black leaders more than watching their hard fought accomplishments go quietly into the night of White Supremacy.

Date Published: 

Sunday, January 17, 2016