Memory  /  Argument

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King

The King holiday is more than a time for reflection. It’s really a time for provocation.

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Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, "How Long Must We Wait? Striving for the Beloved Community," Duke University Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, January 16, 2022. Full presentation of keynote address from which this essay is excerpted.

Duke University Chapel

The dull legacy of King and the deadening repetition of “I Have a Dream” was used as a weapon by the right to present their political agenda as colorblind, as they dismissed Black suffering as lapsed personal responsibility, cultural deficiency, or the warped values of Black families. The problem with how we remember King is not just the inaccuracy or the distortion of his politics, but it is also how those distortions are used to pursue or justify regressive policies that King never would have supported and most certainly would have organized protests against.

King, who once described the United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” while also calling for a radical distribution of wealth in the name of equality, would support teaching Critical Race Theory, acknowledging slavery as central to the political, social, and economic development of the United States, and would be in the streets decrying continued attacks on the right to vote and rampant police abuse and attacks on Black communities.

The distortion of King’s legacy is not only because of the antics of the right, though. Liberals have been just as invested in presenting a distorted version of King as a more palatable version of Black politics, compared to the militancy, anger, and destruction that overwhelmed the Black movement in the late 1960s. On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in August 2013, then-President Barack Obama crystallized this historical rendering when he said: “And then if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination.”

“That,” Obama continued, “is how progress stalled. That is how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remains divided.” This perception of riots as senseless and criminal, or in contrast to the nonviolent movement that is seen as heroic, has cemented the notion of King as their essential opposite, with almost no recognition of the transformation of his own politics from the March on Washington in 1963 to his emphasis on mass direct action, civil disobedience, anti-imperialism, and anti-capitalism at the end of his life.