MLK: His Nightmare, Their Dream and Our Reality [Opinion]
“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”— Zora Neale Hurtston
Andy Warhol is remembered saying that death is embarrassing because somebody else must handle all of your details. I think this must be even truer when the handlers are domination. This is especially true in the strange case of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the unpopular, anti-capitalist, black Christian activist and thinker that since his assassination turned into a commonly weaponized deity of peace and non-violence against those invested in resistance. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. exists so diversely in how he envisioned his legacy, how domination perpetuates its perverted narrative of who he was and the reality of MLK that lives somewhere in these details.
Perhaps, informed by my queerness or my knack for complicating things that are just too simple and binary for my own comfort that my partner calls both charming and maddening, I experience immense amounts of anger when I see how simply MLK is handled in the public imagination.
December 10th will mark the 52nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. winning the Noble Peace Prize in 1964. During his acceptance speech he concluded it by saying:
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education, and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits… I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land… I still believe that we shall overcome!”
Less than four years later, King launched the Poor People’s Campaign which was an anti-capitalist movement that sought to bring justice in the form of economic and human rights to poor people in America, regardless of their background. Less than four years later, King spoke about seeing a promise land, not fearing death and knowing he'd not have longevity in this life. The next day, he was assassinated on the balcony of The Lorraine Motel. King’s family believed James Earl Ray, the person convicted of King’s assassination, was not responsible. Many intellectuals and historians believe King’s death was the result of him attacking Washington D.C. and capitalism.
King said in his “Three Evils of Society” speech:
“Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.”
These sets of facts next to each other alone bring up a different idea of the reality King lived in and the promise land he prophesized. King’s approval rating in the 1960’s was horrendous and his more radical positions on wealth distribution, housing, and war left him too radical for white liberals while his non-violent rhetoric left him largely alienated by black people seeking an approach that did not exclude physical retaliation or the idea of not wanting to reform/abolish white-supremacist capitalist systems, but instead focused on creating exclusively black systems and programs. It was not until King’s death that his approval ratings amongst white people changed and his function in the black imagination was one of the martyr rather than the old man with the old ideas.
In death, the white imagination found new use for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He became weaponized against more black radical resistance strategies to ensure obedience and disruption that could be controlled—even marketed for consumption. The idea of King is perpetually used to invoke ideas of non-violence, despite the fact that it was a bullet from a gun that went through his jaw, through his shoulder and his spinal cord that ended his life. By white liberals and people of all races complicit in white supremacy, he is consistently used to create order and peace despite writing this sentiment on the love of order in a letter from the Birmingham jail: “The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than [to] justice”. Three days after his death Nina Simonesang that the King of Love is dead and riots broke out nationwide. During a 60 Minutes interview in 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. said to Mike Wallace, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
In 2016, an understandable rejection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. exists amongst artists, organizers, thinkers and everyday folks alike who are interested in radical resistance practices because of this reimagining of who MLK was in the white imagination and how it has been used to silence and de-radicalize black movements. King will continue to be used to silence black people and other people of color and invoke ideas of interlocking arms of people that live underneath domination quietly, peacefully and most disturbingly, willingly.
The most disturbing part of this manipulation is that you can weaponize almost anyone against the very people they desired to liberate if you use their dreams and hopes of what they wish to be as laws, especially in death, when the details are those for domination to handle, not the actual dreamer of these dreams. Love is paramount and necessary. Love is important to express and articulate, and move towards. Peace is ideal. Peace is something to dream of, articulate, theorize and choose first. What domination will not express clearly is that black resistance did choose peace first and the choice dropped dead on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee decades ago. Domination will use those that dreamed of peace, but were still slain by white domination as a way to keep the marginalized suffering and domination perpetuating. It will dethrone a king and strip away all substance of what he stood for, and give him a holiday and a dream if it means keeping black people stuck between a cop and a hard, orange place.
The reality that King was grappling with shortly before his assassination was the spiritual death of a country. Domination will not tell you that while King was on his anti-capitalist journey, decades ago, he named the disease that was killing this rotted corpse of a country we reside in now. A year before his assassination he said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Surely, 53 years later, with wars on drugs and in Iraq, the militarization of the police, this country has been rapidly going in the same direction King warned us against. We are trying to reform or protest against or appeal morally to a dead thing; unable to hear, speak, or move. This is the saddest function of this reimagining of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the white imagination; because it is clear that the dreams he had have expired and trying to apply a lot of his dreams to our modern reality is equivalent to giving a corpse a teaspoon of cough syrup, or offering a falling man therapy as he plummets. The sick and twisted truth is King is commonly used to perpetuate the problem and silence any uprising, but his work actually holds the answer even as it is violently distorted. Surely, this is the nightmare of King and the dream of domination. The reality of today is King’s words beg for black people and all marginalized people to imagine what do you do now that the chance of love and peace in America is dead?
Myles E. Johnson is an Atlanta, Georgia based storyteller. He is also the creator of the literary project, Dear Giovanni. You can follow him on Twitter @HausMuva.