Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 33: Celebrating Dr. King

NEWSLETTER WEEK 33 – JANUARY 15, 2021

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Hi friends,

Starting these emails is always such a weirdly daunting task these days. It feels like we’re walking on a razor’s edge of not leading ourselves further into despair while being honest about the sources of that despair. Things are… um…. Hard? Everywhere?

So if you feel like you’re hitting a wall induced by pandemic/coup/illness/economic instability/”the cruelty is the point”/job-related dread/”I cannot deal with the people who refuse to acknowledge how damning this all is”/”I do not have bandwidth to acknowledge how damning this all is”/climate change/seasonal affective disorder, just know that we have been in this same brain space this week. Things feel heavy everywhere and we’re just trying to savor the joy in our personal lives while holding space for the grief everywhere else.

With that, we offer our own variation on some evergreen words spoken by Dr. King, himself, the subject of today’s newsletter: that long arc of the moral universe that Dr. King talked about does bend toward justice, but we have to be the ones manually bending it with our calloused, tired hands. We can do it. But it’s okay to say we’re tired sometimes.

Speaking of Dr. King, today is his birthday and Monday, everyone’s corporate workplace/school/religious institution has some sort of socially distanced day of service planned and that’s so great! However, this is not a newsletter about the good intentions in making Dr. King’s legacy palatable so that it’s accessible “across the aisle.” This is a newsletter about what Dr. King was actually about.

For the rest of this newsletter, you will see the word “radical” over and over again. This is intentional. We recognize the loaded nature of this word’s use in modern culture. However, for the purposes of this weekend’s newsletter, we ask that you apply Angela Davis’s definition:

Radical simply means grasping things at the root. 
In unearthing our earliest memories of learning about Dr. King (which, for most white people was probably the first time they were formally taught about racism), we recall lessons of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. For us, this was pretty much the extent of our education about Martin Luther King Jr.: he had a dream that one day his Black children could coexist with white children, he marched for Civil Rights (simplified to sitting on the front of the bus and at a lunch counter and going to the same schools as white children), and then he was tragically assassinated. None of these abbreviated lessons about racism were untrue, but they did gloss over both the painful legacy of racism and the radical lessons of Dr. King. Like most whitewashed versions of history, the only thing radical about these lessons was that they were radically incomplete. 

For many of us, rather than teach us the power of Black leaders, the importance of acknowledging race and racism, this taught us to pretend we don’t see race. Often taught by white teachers in majority white classrooms, this quick history lesson became one of manufactured post-racialism of the modern day. And it carried with us into other spaces: our corporate workplaces, heartwarming media stories of days of service, our absolutely insufferable “Dr. King wouldn’t like that” facebook posts about “rioters” over the years. Many of us were taught “racism is bad and that’s why it isn’t acceptable in mainstream society anymore,” as though racism-induced disparities didn’t abound, which made it easy to think that people talking about modern racism were being “divisive.” We were taught, through this fabricated version of history, that if you mean well and aren’t actively trying to discriminate, then you are off the hook! Racism is over! So easy, right?

Obviously not. But it’s really compelling to believe that version of revisionist history when our own complicity is called into question. 

A MORE HONEST DEPICTION OF DR. KING’S LEGACY

Dr. King’s activism began around 1954, as he finished a doctoral dissertation at Boston University. At 25 years old, he began his pastoral career at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, around the time of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, effectively ending legal segregation in the United States. From the very start of his career, he noted that this radical moment in time necessitated a radical approach to politics.

The year after the Brown decision, Dr. King helped facilitate and lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which cost lines an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 bus fares each day, and cost the city $3000 each day for over a year. (That is a LOT of 1955 money! Can’t you just hear the “I understand they’re upset but can’t they protest in a less economically inappropriate way?!” now?)

The Montgomery bus boycott lasted for 381 days, as those boycotting walked or carpooled to and from their destinations. The boycott and a subsequent legal challenge was so effective that it forced the Montgomery City Lines bus company to desegregate their fleet by November 1956, which resulted in years of nonviolent organizing in the South.

Dr. King’s unconventional engagement tactics, organizing Black communities through direct actions on buses, at lunch counters, libraries, and many other public facilities, made him a household name. There was nothing palatable or pleasant about hitting the pocketbooks of the bus companies. There was nothing aesthetically appealing about the hundreds of Black men and women sitting at a lunch counter, getting beaten with lunch trays and pelted with food. But Dr. King didn’t care to be palatable, pleasant, or appealing to uncomfortable white people; he wasn’t interested in comfort.

Around the same time, Black women and girls like 15-year-old Claudette Colvin and 42-year-old Rosa Parks were leading the charge to ignore segregation laws on Montgomery buses that relegated black riders to the back rows and mandated they give up their seats to white riders. Southern cities became pressure cookers of racist violence; police dogsattacked, fire hoses pummelled, white mobs (both hooded, and with faces proudly showing) burned crosses and threatened families and bombed churches. 14-year-old Chicago-born Emmett Till was gruesomely kidnapped and murdered while visiting family in Money, Mississippi, in August 1955. Four little girls were killed in cold blood by Klansmen in a Birmingham church.

These acts of terror further radicalized Dr King; they represented the horrors of the anti-Black racism he was bracing himself to stand against. King was arrested fairly regularly. He was threatened almost daily. He was called a “whole-hearted communist*,” a “Leninist and a Marxist,” ”the most notorious liar in the country,” “a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that,” by FBI and its director at the time, J. Edgar Hoover.

Dr. King was known as a staunch anti-war activist and spoke firmly against U.S. militarism in the Vietnam War. In an April 1967 speech called “Beyond Vietnam,” King called the war “madness.” This was a particularly radical, polarizing opinion in a moment when protests of the war had begun erupting across the country. In no uncertain terms, King articulated his opposition to the war in Vietnam, saying:
“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

King’s radical views on addressing poverty came to a head in early 1968, as he planned the Poor People’s Campaign. This march on Washington was an explicit critique of the government’s inattention to class disparities. It was meant to demand greater acknowledgement of poverty, the way it was disproportionately experienced by Black folks, and the way the government could (and should!) put an end to it. The campaign’s radical vision demanded access to housing, employment, and health care for those historically denied those fundamental rights. And its goals weren’t specifically racial: they were class-based: it challenged Congress to pass sweeping anti-poverty legislation to benefit all Americans living in the margins.

Dr. King was murdered before the march was completed. At just 39 years old, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was shot standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis, TN. The bullet struck his jaw and severed his spinal cord. He was on his way to participate in a sanitation workers strike. Tens of thousands of people participated in protests following his death, lining the streets to see his casket journey from Memphis back to Atlanta. 

* Feels important to note that the term communist was regularly used to discredit activists for any sort of equal treatment at the time (and frankly, still is!). At some point we’ll release a newsletter about the use of threats of communism/socialism to undermine any and all efforts by Black and Indigenous activists over the years. 

DR. KING’S DREAM WASN’T POPULAR

Dr. King’s views were extremely unpopular and only became more unpopular over the course of his lifetime. A 1965, Gallup poll found that King had a 45% positive and 45% negative rating. And in 1966, the last year he was included in the poll, his positive rating dropped to 32% while his negative rating increased to 63%.

Despite this, by 2011, his rating was 94% positive. And it is hardly believable that this stark increase in positive opinions is rooted in his radical legacy. Rather, it is “the product of generations of appropriation of his liberatory work and a whitening of his effort to ensure more freedom for those least likely to attain it in the United States.” We sanitized his legacy and fit it into our modern interests in making racism something foreign and external to us, personally.

So, in preparation for the inevitable onslaught of whitewashed Dr. King quotes this weekend, let’s see what Dr. King said regarding some of the common misconceptions about him.

DR. KING WAS MOST CONCERNED ABOUT “MODERATES”

“I must confess that over the last 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 the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; 

who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until 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.

(Letter from a Birmingham Jail, August 1963)

DR. KING’S DREAM WAS URGENT

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.”  There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.”

(Beyond Vietnam, April 1967)

DR. KING WASN’T ANTI-RIOT


 But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. 

And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. 

And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

(Interview with Mike Wallace for CBS, August, 1963)

DR. KING WAS PRO-AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, PRO-REPARATIONS, AND ANTI-CAPITALISM

“A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.”


“We must not be oblivious to the fact that the larger economic problems confronting the Negro community will only be solved by federal programs involving billions of dollars.”
 

“Something is wrong with the economic system of our nation. . . . Something is wrong with capitalism.”  (In his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, published 1967)

This weekend, in the wake of white supremacist violence, we will also inevitably see thousands of people glorifying only the convenient, feel-good parts of Dr. King’s legacy. We are committing to desanitizing this incredible legacy. It has never been so important that we, recovering white moderates, embrace whatever “radical” labels are thrust on us, and continue to do the micro and macro level work it takes to build a more just, antiracist world.

If the truth is inconvenient, so be it. That long arc of the moral universe doesn’t bend itself toward justice, we have to do it. 

We’ll (for real this time) be back in your inboxes on Monday. Stay safe and healthy until then!

In Solidarity,
Ellie, Emily, and Hayden

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