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Supporting MLK’s Actual Legacy.

The powers that maintain the status quo were happy to support Dr. King’s racial justice advocacy, since these powers knew how easily that advocacy could be sanitized, repurposed, and folded back into the status quo.

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Supporting MLK’s Actual Legacy.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson meeting at the White House on March 18, 1966.

Supporting MLK’s Actual Legacy

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a socialist, which is why he advocated for racial equality. It was Dr. King’s socialism, and not merely his advocacy for racial equality, that drew the ire of the murderous forces that eventually assassinated him. The powers that maintain the status quo were happy to support Dr. King’s racial justice advocacy, since these powers knew how easily that advocacy could be sanitized, repurposed, and folded back into the status quo. But when Dr. King began loudly denouncing not just racial inequality, but all inequality—poverty, subjugation, American imperialism—he could no longer be allowed to live.

Since Dr. King’s murder in 1968, these same defenders of the status quo have undertaken a vast project of historical negationism with respect to Dr. King and his legacy. Dr. King cared only about race, his own race, and so fought for justice for people like him, you’ll hear. These defenders of the status quo know that if Dr. King’s history can be falsified so as to make him merely a proponent of racial equality, Dr. King’s advocacy can be folded back into the status quo. The forces that rewrite history today are the same as those that assassinated Dr. King in 1968.

The “white moderate” Dr. King derides in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (excerpted below) as “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom” is the same person who today stands in the way of real progress in the fight for the elimination of poverty, in the campaign for universal healthcare, in the struggle for workers to control their own workplaces and their own lives. The white moderate who, according to Dr. King, says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action” is the same person who today says that those on the Left need to “be realistic” with our demands and that we “need to work from within the system”—the very system that fails us and our countrymen every hour of every day. The white moderate, who, Dr. King says “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” is the same person who today expresses disdain for democracy, believing that most Americans are not smart enough, not moral enough, not valuable enough to participate in national decision-making, and that a qualified and credentialed few deserve to rule over all the rest.

If a person parrots slogans about racial justice while ignoring or even working against justice for all people, that person is not the inheritor of Dr. King’s legacy. If a person tweets and posts about their beliefs on equality but then does nothing to actually teach others why equality is morally necessary, that person is not the inheritor of Dr. King’s legacy. If a person defends the humanity of those whose partisan affiliation aligns with their own but then denies the humanity of those with a different partisan affiliation, that person is not the inheritor of Dr. King’s legacy. Dr. King made it clear that a person who behaves like this is not on his side—they are his enemy, and they are an enemy of freedom, equality, and justice.

Today, we would all be wise to ask ourselves whether we are really supporters of what Dr. King stood for, or, instead, whether we pick and choose parts of what Dr. King actually said, actually believed in, actually fought and died for, things that we can then use as weapons to undermine Dr. King’s true legacy.

In solidarity with him and that true legacy.

Here is a relevant excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 16 April 1963:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

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Andrew D. Chapman

Published 4 months ago