Black Power Matters

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"Black Lives Matter" is drawn on the ground in chalk as protesters demonstrate against racism in the "Reclaim MLK" march January 19, 2015 outside the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Missouri. AFP/Michael B. Thomas

William C. Sullivan, former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation intelligence operations, once called Martin Luther King Jr “the most dangerous Negro in the future [of the United States of America]” in a memo to J. Edgar Hoover titled “Communist Party, USA, Negro Question.” In the years since Dr. King’s death, the official riff on his legacy has undergone a marked shift; and, accordingly, the reverend’s message has been simplified and stripped of its radical elements. Revolutionary components of his philosophy have been wiped away or tamed, his subversive declarations ignored. Now, for the national holiday that bears his name, activists around the United States responded to this white-washing with a campaign to reclaim the legacy of the civil rights leader (#ReclaimMLK).

Arguably, the stigmatization of Black self-determination, resistance to police brutality, and opposition to a deeply rotten and intrinsically dominant system of white hegemony, is similar to the repression experienced by the civil rights pioneers of King’s day. “The greatest stumbling block towards freedom,” as he described it in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” remains the same: “the white moderate,” or, to put it in today’s parlance, the white liberal:

“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"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

At present, systematic racism, in combination with the physical and emotional violence perpetuated by the state, continue to have a detrimental impact on the lives and livelihoods of Black people. And the sanitization of figures like Martin Luther King Jr. is part and parcel of this war on Black communities. The reverend is often used to shame Black activists into bowing to liberal methodologies, so that they relinquish any form of forceful resistance.

In what follows, read two responses to #ReclaimMLK and the implication of the emptying of Martin Luther King's profound message.

”Weaponizing Dr. King's legacy to silence black resistance”

Zoe Samudzi: Master's graduate from the Department of Social Psychology from the London School of Economics. She is an activist-academic “blending critical [race and gender] theory and public health issues, specifically focusing on inequitable disease risk and trans female and Black communities.”

When I hear Dr. King's name, I think immediately of his "I Have a Dream" speech, because it’s the best demonstration of his oratory power and passion. But, in my mind, Dr. King was the face of the Black American civil rights movement, not its leader.

His legacy has ultimately been stripped of any semblance of radicalism. His ideas about racial equality have been weaponized to serve this liberal idea of colorblindness and "not seeing race." This, I think, is a complete misinterpretation of the part of the "I Have a Dream" speech where he envisions his children living in a nation that judges them by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. King had to be sanitized because his Black radicalism is antithetical to whiteness. Mainstream white America is constitutionally incapable of celebrating a Black leader’s truly transformative ideas and politics. Look at how Malcolm X was maligned by the mainstream. Look at how so many people characterize Nelson Mandela as a champion of non-violence. Dr. King has been sanitized by a white-centric history for the same reason he was assassinated: his radical blackness was a threat.

In my reclamation of Martin Luther King, Jr., I hope to resurrect his radical (but actually not-so-radical) ideas in my everyday politics. Though I'm an atheist, I have a deep respect for religious people who channel their beliefs into a politics grounded in equity and equality. Further, I hope to channel his sense of fierce love and compassion for humanity into everything I do. I also hope to continue the economic analyses and movements he began before his assassination. In our actualization of racial equality, economic justice must come to the fore, as capitalism has been, and continues to be, a major source of disenfranchisement and marginalization for Black, Latino, and Native communities in the United States. By championing racial justice in the name of Dr. King, we must not only indict structures of whiteness that create racial hierarchies, but the prison and military complexes, housing and employment discrimination and exclusion, which perpetuated cycles of generational poverty, school closures and lack of access to education, and other processes that drive inequality.

I've seen young people who, inspired by his legacy, are using similar tactics — disrupting brunches (#BlackBrunch), disrupting traffic, and using direct action and protests to raise awareness, forcefully diverting attention to the cause. Particularly in the past couple years, I have seen a concerted attempt to grasp his radical thoughts and and share them with others. Honestly, it’s only in the past few years that I've learned about him beyond the teddy bear "I Have a Dream" caricature.

I would advise those who ridicule black people by using Dr. King’s words selectively to shut up, because they have no idea what he stood for. Dr. King was a proponent of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience, but he was not meek and complacent. He participated in disruptive street protests and consumer boycotts, and was arrested for his actions something like 30 times . He demanded that white liberals evaluate their behaviour and complicity in systems of whiteness (which is ironic, given that white liberals, as well as racists, are responsible for weaponizing Dr. King's legacy to silence black resistance). Most importantly, I would tell those who disingenuously preach Dr. King's "legacy" to stop perpetuating black respectability politics. All black lives matter, whether they're cis or trans or heterosexual or LGBTQ or sex workers or whatever: the idea that black people are ultimately responsible for pulling themselves out of racial oppression is not only violent, but simply inaccurate. To place Dr. King on a pedestal, as is the nature of his sanitized legacy, is to conveniently pick and choose the politics that best suit the mainstream. You either take Dr. King for the radical, imperfect, and inspirational figure that he was or you leave him alone.

MLK quotes as a “weapon against those who agitate for radical change”

Douglas Williams: Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Alabama, researching the labor movement and labor policy. He blogs at The South Lawn.

If you would have asked me five years ago what my first thought was when hearing Martin Luther King Jr.’s name, I would've described him as "a disciple of Gandhi, who felt that violence was not necessary to bring forth revolutionary change." But now? The first thing that comes to mind is "someone who is misunderstood by most of those who seek to follow him." The legacy of MLK has been sanitized for many reasons: the racial reconciler MLK makes white liberals feel good about themselves and what neoliberal capitalism has deemed "progress;" his inspirational quotes are wielded as a weapon against those who agitate for radical change; “I Have A Dream” is used by white conservatives because "judge a man not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character" sounds a lot better than "In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.....;’" and so on and so on. MLK is such an overarching figure in American history that you can pick out portions of any of his speeches and use them to your own ends. And boy, has white America ever!

Reclaiming MLK means recognizing the totality of his character and political legacy. It also means realizing that the campaign which had the most potential to transform the world we live in — his Poor People's Campaign — was cut short by his assassination, and that we must now pick up that baton and get to work for the most vulnerable in our society. MLK led the closest thing to a successful popular front in American history, when the Movement won the right to sit at lunch counters and vote in free and fair elections. We should learn from his example and engage in an organizing strategy that brings all kinds of people together and presses forward for unabashedly radical change, like universal health care, an overhaul of our election systems, and a massive public works infrastructure that puts people to work for the country they love.

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Sydney based Lebanese-American journalist and commentator. She tweets @roqchams and writes 'Letters From the Underground.'


Tavis Smiley was on the radio the other day, he's written a book about MLK's last year, and the theme is that that last year was the loneliest year because it started with the Riverside speech where MLK came out against the Vietnam War (then at its height: April 1967). Everybody shunned MLK as a result of that speech. Usually "everybody" means "a few people in power", but Smiley says that after this speech MLK had about two friends left. His own Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff members put together a petition to him asking him to repudate the speech. The gist of the speech was that there are three evils in the world: racism, poverty, and militarism. Smiley's point: hasn't this process only gotten worse in the last forty seven years? Ask a US military vet of Iraq or Afghanistan what a "hajji" is. If you remember Vietnam or the Korean War, you know what a "gook" was. To my ear, when a military person in Iraq spoke of "hajjis", it seemed to mean "trash", and the speaker could have any skin tone, any cultural background: it seemed to be up in the ninety percent or higher range of my fellow soldiers who used this term.

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