Before You Post Another MLK Quote—You Need To Check Out #ReclaimMLK

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 

After years and years of police brutality, Black people are fed up. The uprising that is coming in the form of protests across the country is taking us right back to the 1960s Movement for equality. Because of that, people are really looking at the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. And that’s great, but many white people are trying to frame his work in a way that is just wrong. “What would MLK have to say about this?” is a white person’s rallying cry lately and the thing is, Black people know exactly what he’d say. Thanks to social media, Black people are reclaiming his words for what they truly mean.

You need to stop and listen before you continue to use his words to promote your racism and complacency.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white man in 1968, white people didn’t like him very much. It’s important to remember that his legacy has been long fought for by those close to him. And because white people are who they are, they’ve decided to create their own version of that legacy. The white people version of MLK is the one we get in our history books and social studies lessons. But now there’s no longer an excuse to pretend to not know what he was truly saying. You can find his words everywhere, after all.

Make no mistake, he spoke about everything we’re facing right now as Black people. The phrase “history repeats itself” has never been more true than when it comes to race relations in the United States. Systemic racism is as American as apple pie, and Dr. King knew that. He spent much of his time trying to warn Black people on the true nature of not only this country, but the people with power. And his message was abundantly clear: until white people acknowledge and confront racism, there’s no way forward. The fact that we’re still saying that is embarrassing and infuriating.

And not for Black folks, but for white folks.

Police brutality is another thing that hasn’t changed. What we’re seeing on social media and television is the same things our older relatives saw back in the ’60s. They just didn’t have iPhones back then.

During the Civil Rights Movement, police forces were turning high pressure hoses on protesters, forcibly throwing them back into the crowds. They allowed their police dogs to attack and maim those marching. Now, they’re using tear gas and rubber bullets. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

African American children are attacked by dogs and water cannons during a protest against segregation organized by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth in May 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Just because MLK didn’t advocate throwing punches doesn’t mean he was anti-protest or a pacifist. That’s what a lot of white people on Twitter and Instagram are failing to remember. Or maybe they never even knew it, but they’re so sure they know his beliefs that they’re actually arguing with his children on Twitter. Can you imagine telling someone’s children that they’re wrong about their parents’ beliefs? The caucasity of the internet is wild sometimes, but here we are.

A Martin Luther King Jr. quote is seen on Lake Street during the fourth day of protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, United States on May 29, 2020.

Anadolu Agency/Getty

Right now, we’re living through what is beginning to feel like a second Civil Rights Movement. There is no doubt that MLK is the face of the movement, even though it took many people fighting to get anywhere. But it’s his approach of nonviolent protest that white people really attach themselves to. So whenever Black people fight back in a way white people deem unsatisfactory, they throw peaceful protest in our faces. White people love to tokenize MLK, and they love to say “Martin Luther King would never,” as if they actually know what his beliefs were.

White people use Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy to pressure Black people into silence. When we rise up, his name is used as a way to slap us back down. People saying that he would be ashamed to see the state of the country aren’t necessarily wrong. But they’re not right for the reasons they think. He would be ashamed to see that literally nothing has actually changed. Yes, Black folks have made progress, but it’s nothing compared to what it should be. In his “I Have A Dream” speech, Dr. King hoped that one day his children (who are now old enough to collect Social Security) would not be “judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” That’s simply not true in America in 2020.

We’re still fighting because Black men and women are dying because of the color of their skin. The people who are supposed to be protecting them are actively slaughtering them. You want to sit here and quote MLK at Black people, but can’t even see that his words have long fallen on ears that are not willing to listen? If he was still alive, he’d be saying the same things he was saying 50 fucking years ago. That’s why Black people are taking to the streets. The things that were problems for us back then shouldn’t still be problems for us now. So, we must rise up.

Don’t you dare talk to us about his messages of love and hate when we’re a race of people who are literally under siege. We’re suffering at the hands of institutional racism — we’re not making as much at our jobs as our white counterparts, for one. Poverty is rampant in our community as a result, forcing us to take low income jobs and live in low income neighborhoods. Our community is plagued with disease as a result of inequity, and now with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re dying in disproportionately higher numbers. And if that isn’t enough, the police are literally hunting us down in the streets to kneel on our necks. We’re not safe anywhere, and Dr. King knew that way back then.

It’s easy to quote that “only love can conquer hate” when you can walk down the street without fear. Love can’t conquer the hate that causes a white cop to kneel on a black man’s throat for almost nine minutes while he cries out in pain, begging for his mother. Love can’t drive out the darkness in the hearts of a white woman who calls the cops on a black man when she’s the one doing something wrong. That’s not what MLK meant at all, nor would he expect us to stand there and take it.

White people, until you sit with all of MLK’s words, really sit with them, don’t you dare try and say you know what he meant. Or what actions he would approve (or disapprove) of. He was a man who wanted unity and peace, yes, but he also knew it comes at a cost, and that you’d need to fuck shit up first to make any progress. If he was still alive, he’d be out there in the streets, marching with us. And don’t you forget it.

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