What Does It Mean to Reclaim MLK Day?

When I was in fourth grade, a teacher at our school placed a transparent picture on an overhead projector (remember those?) depicting a white man walking alongside Martin Luther King Jr., explaining that “the Civil Rights Movement started to make a big impact once white people joined them.” The take-away for the entire class of white kids: we should be nice to black people and help them. Who knows how many years thereafter it took me to subconsciously accept people of color as fully human?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not supposed to be a day for white people to pretend they like people darker than themselves. If we were honoring the true spirit of Dr. King, we wouldn’t just be trying to stage multi-ethnic photo ops in our elementary schools. There is a problem with enshrining a radically subversive man – a man who charismatically led a movement that crippled one of the most militarily and financially insulated empires in the world without firing a single bullet – in the remembrance of a federal holiday. That problem is co-optation of Dr. King’s life and message. Had his prophetic voice not been diluted by the powers that be, perhaps we would celebrate his example in another way.

Let us never forget that the United States government murdered Dr. King. (The King family pressed charges and won on this matter.) Why would such a dominant governmental superpower feel the need to assassinate a single individual? Obviously, his message must have been threatening. It wasn’t simply about black and white kids holding hands. It was about dismantling the oppressive structures that subjugate human beings.

The intersection of race and violence has again been brought into the public dialogue throughout the United States. Scores of black people have been killed by irresponsible police officers who have walked away with no charges. In the face of such daunting inequality and such difficult challenges, we wonder how to proceed.

Having recently been subjected to detainment with some of my friends and colleagues in Uganda, I became curious about Martin Luther King’s assessment of the African continent. Seeking imprisonment was a strategic tactic during the Civil Rights Movement, especially amongst young men and students. I thought researching Dr. King’s reflections on Africa would be an appropriate type of sankofa for me on this holiday, given Dr. King’s intimacy with jails.

Apparently Dr. King had been invited to enjoy an independence celebration shortly after the liberation of Ghana from colonial rule. Dr. King summarized his thoughts on his visit to Ghana in the following way:

“Ghana reminds us that freedom never comes on a silver platter. You better get ready to go to prison…freedom never comes easy. It comes through hard labor and it comes through toil. It comes through hours of despair and disappointment.”

Before it gets better, it may get worse. If we sincerely believe we are going to make a huge dent in the systems of racial inequality by holding up placards for the media, we have a long, long way to go. Hold the placard firmly. Meanwhile, be planning your next action, and be prepared to pay the price. If there’s no personal risk, you probably aren’t upsetting the right people enough. That’s a pretty good rule of thumb in evaluating the impact of our organizing efforts.

It’s a shame articles like this have to be written in the first place, but we must do everything in our capacity to celebrate the life and work of Dr. King for what it truly was. We must invoke the spirit of our beloved ancestor, the fearless, determined, compassionate prophet and activist – not the pseudo Dr. King who merely delivered heartwarming speeches advocating for shared bathrooms.

May your actions this Monday be a sankofa for you.

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