There is one surefire way to know it is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And, no, it is not by looking at the calendar. It is by the slew of perfectly manicured social media posts with the same black and white photos captioned by the same rotating group of sanitized quotes. Quotes about love driving away darkness and dreams about being free at last. As if this one post a year (similar to hollow claims about having black friends) excuses a year’s worth of racism and complicity.
Before we go any further, I just want to clarify: If Dr. King’s legacy doesn’t make you somewhat uncomfortable, you’re doing it wrong.
Scrolling through my feed today, I see quotes and photos that say more about the person posting than the person they supposedly honor. As if Dr. King is a mirror where we can all validate our individual views. Turning him into a vehicle for our own interests as opposed to what he actually stood for is probably the greatest dishonor we could bring on the memory of a man we supposedly revere. When really, we just seem to revere the idea of him. The idea of nonviolence has somehow been conflated with non-confrontational, so suddenly a man who created enemies on both the left and the right now seems like the most undisputed martyr for us to put up on our mantle. Dr. King’s ideas were contentious and controversial and sanitizing him down to something like a fifth member of the Beatles crooning about love and acceptance is a true perversion of history.
White people, don’t get too worked up, but you know I’m looking at you. Or, rather, I’m looking at us. I am not self-important enough to distinguish myself from the white majority who considers themselves ‘woke’, but some days have trouble looking power and privilege in the eye. I am no Joan Trumpauer, even on my best day. But I don’t tell you this to allow us all a pass. I don’t tell you this to excuse our aversion to discomfort. I tell you this because it is true and we tell ourselves enough lies, I don’t need to add any more.
Currently, his work seems to be too easily dismissed by comments on the nonexistence of present-day racism, as if those specific issues are no longer relevant. But I challenge you to think deeper. Voter protections and voter access are an ongoing struggle that is being decided by current court challenges, yet these same people posting about Dr. King’s impact, act as if those are a non-issue. Black Lives Matter and other efforts to fight systemic racism are the direct heirs to his legacy of activism and change, yet those touting their one day in service in January are not willing to serve the cause of greater racial equality. And the list could continue. Access to housing. Anti-poverty programs and social welfare. Opposition to war and colonization. Reparations. If only we were all as determined to speak up for these issues as we pretend to be on the one national holiday celebrating a historical figure that does not have a resume of genocide or enslavement. What a low bar to clear.
Today, I challenge you to look at the legacy of Dr. King, not through the eyes of what he did/would, but what he would want us to do. And I guarantee that’s not a self-aggrandizing post on social media.