Martin Luther King, Jr. is often positioned as this happy-go-lucky civil rights leader who sang Kumbaya to the White, American public, and this was the reason why Black Americans obtained their civil rights in law. But this history is distorted and dishonest.
All too often people forget that the civil rights movement was not free from the use of violence or the use of the threat of violence. People forget that even King’s philosophy of non-violence was met with a great deal of physical violence by the state, and rhetorical violence by many in the American public.
But perhaps what is most irresponsible and quite plainly annoying, many (White) Americans have a penchant for reducing King to seemingly honey-filled, buttery speeches. And oftentimes in doing so, juxtaposition such speeches against other Black American activists in the past and in the present, whose methods and philosophies were different from King’s – who they deem are people he would be ashamed of.
Notably this is done most when people compare King to Malcolm X – even though the two leaders had a mutual respect for each other even if they did not agree or become allies. But it is also done a lot in the wake of Black Lives Matter – the non-traditional social movement that has emerged in the time of heightened awareness of police brutality.
Everyone from 2016 Republican Candidate, Mike Huckabee, to the White moderates or liberals on your Facebook who are “down” for the cause, but often seem to demand that the oppressed free themselves from oppression only in ways they approve of – all claim to know what King would say or think or believe during these times.
I find myself skeptical. Not only because King was often skeptical of the White moderate. But if there’s one thing that is hopefully indisputable, it is that despite King’s notable respectability in the problematic White, American gaze at Blackness, he was still murdered in cold blood. His non-violent approach to civil rights didn’t matter. This is racism, of course, at it’s worst – the taking of a human life.
But even while King was alive, and as much as history has attempted to reshape White attitudes to him at the time, we know that he was a divisive figure. We know that he was still hated.
How do we know King was hated? Aside from plenty of alternative histories (to the ones taught in many a high school history book), plenty of accounts from those who knew him, and plenty of analysis on his less whitewashed, less “quotable” words, we also have this fun thing called the Internet.
And in this vast space of the Internet you can find some pretty cool things – such as the hate mail King received. As one writer has already observed, the hate mail and criticism King received, eerily resembles criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement.
An excerpt from my personal “favourite”:
What about the violence by blacks in these cities?
What is this Black Power business? If it is a threat to Whites– why should Whites not retaliate? Why should Whites hire Blacks?
In these modern times, the person might ask, “What about ‘Black on Black’ violence?” Or, “Why Black Lives Matter, why not All Lives Matter?” The irrational thinking in the thought process of either question, entrenched in the most oblivious kind of White privilege, often escapes those who ask these questions.
The comparison calls for a cliché: The more things seem to change, the more they stay the same.
I’ve learned a lot from writing about race to a very White audience for the last few years. I’ve learned that White people – more often than not – really, really don’t like it when you talk about race. Even when it plays a significant role in how you experience the world, and most certainly the culture and space you currently live in.
I’ve learned that many White people are not only disinterested in how race still greatly affects inequality in this country, you are a villain if you reveal the facts, the observations, the social realities that are the consequences of America’s racial history that affect its present.
I have learned that many White people would rather I live in a dehumanizing silence than make them uncomfortable with my reality for one minute, one second, one moment.
But through this all, I have learned that it would be a crime to stay silent and not speak on the racial inequalities that I observe and sometimes experience – most notably not to the extent of many others – but in a different way.
King’s hate mail depicts the irrationality of racism, a certain absurdity of those who refuse to open their eyes to see the social experiences of others, the hardened hearts who cannot at the very least show empathy to those who are by their very existence marginalized, and must resist. These realities exist today too – albeit in different ways. Indeed, sometimes on this fun thing we call the Internet.
King’s hate mail – though hateful – is transformed into the reason to continue advocating for racial justice anyway, and to do so fearlessly. And perhaps with a better understanding of how detractors and distractions operate – sometimes so obviously, transcending generations.
Personally, this means continuing to write and doing so fearlessly. Because my humanity – and the humanity of others – is more important than your discomfort.