Actor Jesse Williams took to Twitter today to debunk the facile reading of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. The politics of the iconic Civil Rights leader have been tempered over time, but a closer look at MLK words and actions reveal an activist with more radical, less palatable ideas about how social justice would come about.
Below, read Williams thoughts on the subject”
“It’s that time of year again. The sanitation machine, the culture scrubber, tells us to be more like that beloved figurine
#MartinLutherKing. MLK was told that he was “making it about race,” he was too young and impatient and scaring away allies and that he was “the real racist.” American police & media told MLK that if only these blacks would behave differently, THEN they’d be worthy of full protection under the law. MLK dedicated himself to the resistance of injustice.
The separatism & extrajudicial beatings & murders of his day were not on black & white posters set to music, they were in color, in real-time; real lives destroyed & discarded. It was not universally identified as injustice. In fact, it was relentlessly excused, explained & justified away by the same spectrum of “nice Americans” that haunt progress today. His principled, uncompromising voice told the world that Black lives are in fact lives & therefore they matter. Then he was ridiculed for it by “good Americans.” Then beaten, bombed, stabbed, jailed, slandered, lampooned as a monkey by “satirists” & when he didn’t bow, he was shot to death in broad daylight. Surrounded by cameras and “he had it coming.”
He wore a suit, had a doctorate, no tattoos or gold & far more articulate than those pretending any of that makes us more or less human. What heinous excuses & jokes would have littered twitter the day MLK was killed? Then comes the softening of blows, and focus, in death. The sterilizing and controlled reentry. The obedient smile.
#ReclaimMLK, as the human being: The fearless leader of a movement to disrupt real physical, social & psychological oppression (which at the time, was precisely what America stood for & shouted down upon millions of it’s most hardworking, longstanding citizenry).
MLK was decidedly NOT this gift shop souvenir being sold to us by revisionist historians & worshippers of convenience.
#ReclaimMLK Wanna be overseers, life-long house guests & self-service industrialists from sea to shining sea tried to crush MLK then, & us now. #OhWell.
And just as is happening now, the reflection in the mirror MLK held, inspired a current of love & commitment that cannot be extinguished. In honoring MLK we honor the women & men, of all colors, queer, straight, rich & poor, who lifted him up, & themselves in the process. Keeping looking & listening, keep asking, keep thinking, keep writing, keep working, keep talking, keep trying & falling. Keep getting up.”
Williams words were very poignant. Especially his point on how not just Racism (with a big R), but respectability politics, “it’s not about race”, and reverse racism ideology use to justified delayed or denied justice is the same rhetoric Martin Luther King had to combat in the Civil Rights Movement. In general, the MLK we are presented to revere is a much more sanitized version of the man who lived. King was not as “let’s hold hand under a rainbow” as broad stroke revisionist history paints him. He asserted that full and swift justice came from direct action. King was not afraid to be controversial, or call out hypocrisy. In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, King wrote:
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.”
I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.
Basically, he believed that justice comes from action, not self-aggrandizing personal philosophies about racial equality, or how structural racism doesn’t exist because we (on individual levels) aren’t racist. Neither true solidarity, nor true justice work themselves out in convenient ways or at convenient times. King’s work was dedicated to action, not passivity. And his assassination coincided with his politics moving more from “I Have A Dream” type moderatism to fighting for living wage and against housing discrimination (among others).
We can honor his legacy better by understanding what he was actually saying and fighting for. America has progressed, but as recent events have shown, we have very far to go.