Stop Whitewashing The Message Of Martin Luther King Jr.

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
The famous scene of Martin Luther King talking in front of a large crowd

Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my social media feeds are full of memes featuring quotes of his. But the thing that has struck me in the last few years is the differentiation of the messages being shared.

My black friends are sharing messages of action and fighting for equality. But my white friends post messages of love and peace. For the most part, my white friends seem to gloss over the messages about anything other than love.

His messages of love seem to fit the narrative white people have created about him. But in reality, most white people didn’t even like Dr. King when he was alive. And I think that gets forgotten a lot.

As a Christian minister, King’s messages of love are intrinsically tied to his faith. And while he was a man of faith, even he knew that God could only get you so far in the fight for equality. To only share his message about love and not the ones about action is doing his legacy a great disservice.


The March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his most well known speech, “I Have a Dream,” was not solely a march for racism. Economic equality and jobs were just as important to the message of the march. But because Dr. King called for a world where his children could be “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” the other parts of the message have been lost. When you take that portion out of the context of the other 13 minutes he was speaking, it almost feels like a man who is pandering to white Americans to embrace diversity. But really, it was quite the opposite.

“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” he said.

The type of people who love to share quotes about love from Dr. King are the same people he was most wary of during the fight. And the first time I read it I was struck by how absolutely true it was then, and still is now. In his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ he writes this:

“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.”


It’s a tale as old as time. But the same people to whom Dr. King’s message is speaking wouldn’t recognize themselves if they read the words. Because they throw up a couple tired memes on MLK Day and pat themselves on the back for being so understanding.

But here’s the truth: white people didn’t cape this hard for Martin Luther King Jr. until damn near 20 years after he died. Yes, you’re reading that correctly. A Gallup poll from 1987 revealed that Dr. King had a 75 percent approval rating among Americans. In 1966, two years before he was assassinated, 63 percent of Americans did not have a favorable opinion of him, per another Gallup poll. In fact, over half of white Americans (85 percent) believed that civil rights demonstrations hurt the cause that same year. And 50 percent believed Martin Luther King Jr. specifically hurt the cause.

White folks, I dare you to ask your older relatives what they thought of Dr. King — you would likely be surprised.

Well meaning white people love to weaponize Dr. King’s words and his message against black people in the current civil rights fight. “What would Martin Luther King think?” has become a saying fit for one of those WWJD bracelets that were popular in the early 2000s. What they mean is, “how dare you black people think you can demand equality?” as if civil rights had ended when Dr. King was assassinated. Martin Luther King would probably be praising Black Lives Matter and similar organizations for continuing the work because obviously people didn’t get the point 50 years ago.


“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” he said in his “I Have a Dream” speech. That’s what he would think. HE ALREADY SAID IT.

Don’t get the message twisted, Dr. King knew how to game the system, but he wasn’t just about that “let’s all join hands and sing a verse of Abraham, Martin, and John” bullshit. He was calling white people out every chance he got. But he also knew how to talk so that white people would listen and maybe understand the larger point he was getting at.

But to say that he was only about love? Wrong!

So please, take this as a plea to really do your research about what Dr. Martin Luther King was really about. Yes, he was a Christian and believed in the true meaning of Jesus, but that doesn’t negate all the action he took to ensure a better life for black people. Love alone doesn’t drive out hate, actively doing something about hate drives out hate. Loving those who hate us hasn’t gotten black people very far, or else we wouldn’t be saying things like “black lives matter.”


If Dr. King was alive today, he would be doing the same thing he was doing then. Well, maybe not exactly because he’d be in his 90s. But his sentiments would be the same. Stop pretending Martin Luther King was some sort of white knight of the resistance as if he just stood at a pulpit talking about love and peace. He may have only used his words, but it was not all love — it was also about bold and meaningful action. And action doesn’t always look peaceful.

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