Misusing MLK: Focus on King’s “peace” silences Black protest

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jetta Disco via Department of Homeland Security Flickr)

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a radical revolutionist who urged his people to stand up and fight to reclaim their rights and basic needs from America.

But that’s not the image presented when the U.S. commemorates King and his history.

It’s become common to criticize protests of injustice — such as the Colin Kaepernick-led kneeling protest by NFL players — by citing MLK’s “peacefulness” and his calls for “unity,” often with words like, “But MLK preached love, hope and togetherness while all this protesting is promoting division.”

Prominent figures in the African-American community have refocused the narrative on MLK around the hypocrisy of those who would use his memory to silence Black Americans.

Writer Ijeoma Oluo spoke to NPR’s On Point, criticizing the view of King that focused on “how peaceful he was, how loving he was, how kind he was in a way to encourage black Americans to be more passive in their activism.”

The problem lies with the miseducation about MLK’s history and the reality: MLK was a powerful revolutionist. A truth speaker. And a protester. He demonstrated peacefully like so many that have marched (and continue to march) on the streets of Seattle against police brutality.

He was also under scrutiny and regarded as an enemy of the state by the FBI.

Oluo urged a clear-eyed view of King’s actions and beliefs.

“I think we need to remember who he actually was and what he actually said instead of just what suits the powers that be for us to talk about,” she said.

Symone D. Sanders, a Democratic Party strategist and political commentator on CNN, emphasized that King’s views were revolutionary:

I, too, have felt angry at the hypocrisy of people who would praise MLK but bash Colin Kaepernick. Both of these Black men used nonviolent measures to speak up about injustices in America. Yet, one is fired and shunned, while the other is celebrated, nearly 50 years after his assassination.

The view of MLK as a passive voice for equality is incorrect and disrespectful to his memory. It is frustrating to have your anger and sadness silenced with this false image of MLK that is very common in America.

Forcing passivity on African-Americans as they protest injustices is another form of silencing us.

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