Happy MLK Day!!! After all that the horrors and atrocities we witnessed at our nation’s capital, I’m hoping more people—especially the lily white folks such as myself—will take this day to reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and this hard-won civil rights victory. And what better time than now for us all to be cognizant of the past and present struggles for racial equality? If our latest dark chapter in American history didn’t hit home, let me paint a couple of scenes that highlight glaring hypocrisy and double standards in law enforcement.
Exhibit A: Masses of Black protestors marching in the streets holding signs with images of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Trayvon Martin and many others Black Americans murdered by cops. They’re shouting with their fists held high, demanding justice and equality amidst clouds of pepper spray and an armada of police. Red faced, angry talking heads on Fox News are labeling them as “looters” and “crybabies.” Millions of Americans nod their heads to this rhetoric and pledge their allegiance to Trump and his promise to “Make America Great Again,” whilst people fighting for Black lives get shoved in police cruisers, mowed down by angry drivers and shot with rubber bullets.
Exhibit B: Thousands of enraged, entitled white people storm our nation’s capital with weapons, Confederate flags, American flags (that incidentally double as weapons), zip-ties and, Molotov cocktails and pepper spray. Their cause? To hijack the democratic process and overturn the election. Basically, they’re throwing a big hissy fit because their demagogue didn’t win. They storm the front gates–beating down the few policemen who got in their way- and break into what should be a highly secure building. Why? Because they can. Hell, some even stopped to take selfies with the police who were helpful enough to move some of those pesky barricades. They had a grand ol’ time of it running amok in the Senate Chamber and trashing offices All of Trump’s stormtroopers except for one managed to avoid death-by-cop. In fact, they filed out of there like a crowd of people casually exiting a movie theater, taking selfies all the way. Such fun!
Now imagine if these rioters were all Black people. I’ll just leave that right there since there’s no need to spell it out.
That said, our nation continues to be rife with systematic racism and discrimination. True, we did have a Black president, but we are far, far, far away from living in a just society. If anything positive could be taken away from our recent turn of events, it’s the heightened awareness that Black lives STILL don’t matter to millions of white people in this country. After our latest presidential election, the divide is very clear.
So I asked a bunch of college students (I work in higher ed) to tell me how white people can be better allies. They all agreed that the first step is to read up–and that means credible, researched sources, not memes, y’all! Next, you have to sit down and listen to all the viewpoints—even from your crazy MAGA hat-wearing uncle. Really listen and think carefully before responding. Another tip, don’t just post a black square on social media and call it a day. Sorry, that’s just lazy.
“The Sword and the Shield” is an excellent source for building your knowledge base on the lives of our great civil rights visionaries, Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I’m sure you can easily translate the sword and shield metaphors, yet this book tells a different story that shows a lot of gray area around MLK’s peaceful, non-violence stance and Malcolm’s radical Black Power ideology. As you read further into it, you’ll see they were anything but one-dimensional, despite what you read in textbooks.
I dog-eared the heck out of this book and narrowed down a few take-aways to share with you all as we all celebrate this great man’s birthday. You can also go to UT’s book blog to read my Q&A with the author!
Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. recognized how deeply institutionalized racism threatened the hopes, dreams and lives of Blacks living in America. They each brilliantly diagnosed flaws within the American democracy, yet they embraced different strategies for Black liberation at this point—with King maintaining faith in legal and political solutions to combat racial injustice and Malcolm relying on the growing strength, political sophistication and worldliness of the Black community as the true measure of power.
King’s visit to Ghana and Europe, where he marveled at the resilience of ordinary Africans and paused to consider the vastness of a rapidly crumbling British empire, found him firmly in the camp of Black internationalism, a political ideology shared by Malcolm X. Malcolm’s thirst for radical Black dignity and King’s quest for Black citizenship most comfortably met on the world stage.
On the tenth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s death, King published an editorial arguing humanity faced a choice between “non-violence” and “non-existence.” He was confident in the ability of Christianity’s love ethic to spur social transformation across whole societies, regions, nation-states, and, eventually the entire world. He would begin by confronting Southern racial mores that viewed Black subjugation as the divine right of whites, who blissfully attended segregated churches, wept at Billy Graham’s religious crusades and prayed to God to maintain a way of life based on Black misery.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. would never meet in a formal debate; however, both of them were acutely aware of one another. More than that, they were building—both consciously and unconsciously—a public persona that served in response to each other.
King believed that racial justice required more than new laws. The birth of a new American age required the transformation of hearts and minds, a quest that king now embarked on to teach to the president, the attorney general and the entire nation the depth and breadth of an unfolding “social revolution” that he endeavored to remain at the center of.
If King sought to persuade the highest bastions of white power of the worthiness of Black citizenship, Malcolm remained convinced that Black people needed to recognize the strength of their own humanity before they could rightfully expect others to do so.
I could add more, but I’ll stop right here so you can download this book or—gasp!—purchase an old school hardback and dog-ear your own favorite passages. The hardback is gorgeous, so go ahead and splurge! At that, I’ll leave you with these words that perfectly encapsulate the largely unknown truths about Dr. King.
King would not recognize himself in the uncomplicated, largely timid figure that much of the nation and the world celebrate today. The Radical King who gathered an army of the poor to descend upon the nation’s capital in defiance of critics, is airbrushed from history. The risk-taking King who defied a sitting president to protest war, is missing from our popular memory. The revolutionary King who marched shoulder-to-shoulder with garbage workers, locked arms with Black Power militants, and lived in Chicago ghettos in an effort to stimulate social change, is forgotten. The King who proclaimed that America’s greatness remained “the right to protest for right,” has all but vanished, replaced by generic platitudes about freedom and justice.
I’m sad the march isn’t happening today, but we can all look back at my favorite MLK Day oratory speech contest winner circa 2016. This little guy is fierce and on point!