An MLK Day Message: Civil Rights Reality Checks in a Bankrupt Culture

January 17, 2017
Civil Rights

Skyler Nash ’17

It’s funny how in death great figures seem to lose their controversy. By the time Nelson Mandela died in 2013 he was revered by people of all colors. Be that as it may, this was not the case for much of his life which included being tried for treason and sabotage, and being imprisoned in a small cell forced to use a bucket for a toilet for 27 years, all over his fight for equal rights. When Muhammad Ali died this past year, you would have thought that no one had ever been so universally loved. However, for much of his life, until he slowly lost his ability to communicate, this was not the case. Lest you forget that Ali had his heavyweight title stripped from him, and was threatened with federal charges, jail time, and countless death threats for his refusal to enlist in the Army and participate in the Vietnam War. He consistently faced condemnation for his belief that the color of skin and his religious beliefs were entitled to the same civil rights and opportunities as all others. The same goes for the man that we honor tomorrow.

At this point in 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. is near sainthood, unanimously praised and exalted by all, regardless of race. What we must understand is that all too often this seemingly nationwide love affair with our fallen heroes is a form of emotional reparations for sins of past generations. Today on Martin Luther King day I dare you be conscious of this dichotomy. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was an inspirational leader, a courageous organizer and a man of God, but he was also a radical. He had to be. While these days our politicians on both sides of the aisle feel empowered to use his name to accompany and justify their various partisan actions and beliefs, 50 years ago Martin Luther King was considered an enemy of the state and was vehemently opposed to our class system and the grossly unequal distribution of wealth that continues to plague our country almost 50 years after his death. Nevertheless, many of the proponents of the very things Dr. King was so opposed to in the American political and social structure find it fit to invoke his name with alarming regularity. Just look at their social feeds.

We are now so far removed from the reality of our country’s sordid past, and have so distorted the history of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that many have used his name to chastise and marginalize the very modern day civil rights movement modeled by his example, Black Lives Matter. Many of the issues Dr. King fought so hard against are the very same issues that gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement and the events which we have seen dominate the news and popular culture these past few years. Some politicians have gone as far as to make blatantly nonfactual statements, as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed did when he said, “Dr. King would never take a freeway.” As we know, and will see coming up in Ava Duvernay’s movie Selma, that is most certainly not the case. Not only would Dr King have “taken” a freeway in pursuit of civil rights, he did take one in a show of pure, unadulterated courage following the horrific and televised assault of Bloody Sunday in 1965. How about Mike Huckabee stating that Dr. King would be appalled by the Black Lives Matter movement, when in truth the facts of Dr. King’s life assures us that what he would actually be appalled by is Mike Huckabee himself. It is our duty to recognize that this practice of revisionist history regarding Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, and the systemic oppression of people of color in this nation, is an effort to allow large parts of our country to remain comfortable keeping the modern day movement for civil rights at arms length and unmixed with their own lives. This effort is never more obvious than when we see peaceful protests devolve into riots such as they did in Baltimore and Milwaukee. Then we heard cries from both arcs of the political pendulum that due to his nonviolent approach, Dr. King, had he lived to see this day, would undoubtedly stand against this generation of protesters and activists. What they fail to remember however, or most accurately, choose to forget, is that Dr. King also said,

“I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”

We must admit that this “winter’s delay” remains true today.

So while many will take this day to post pictures of their black boyfriend or girlfriend happily stating that “MLK died for this,” and some will post pictures with MLK quotes and remark about how “far we’ve come,” we must understand that such watered down platitudes are an injustice to the truth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s existence. It is our duty on this day of all days to not only recognize this simplification, the ignorance and the historical rebrand, but to call them out, learn more and demand better. In recognition of that duty I invite you to revisit Dr. King’s most famous speech. Many of you may even be able to recite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words,

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,”

However you must know that simple ideal was not what this speech was about. Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was about a check that was written out to all citizens through the constitution, promising them their unalienable rights.

“Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

I implore us all to recognize, on this day of all days, that that check of which Dr. King spoke so many decades ago has still not been funded by this nation. Realize that the civil rights movements that surround us today are meant to challenge us and make us uncomfortable, because they are demanding that America’s check be wholly and fully funded so that it can finally be cashed by us all.

Fifty years later we are still being led to believe the bank of American justice that Dr. King spoke of that historic day has insufficient funds to accommodate the equal rights of people of color, the LGBTQ community, women, veterans, the disabled and the displaced. But just as Dr. King did, we the believers, the fighters, the supporters of civil rights, must refuse to believe that proverbial bank is bankrupt. That’s why it is on us to celebrate and honor the true life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by rejecting revisionist history, by embracing the modern civil rights movements that surround us, and by doing everything within our power to make sure that no longer will we exist in a country where everyone cannot fully cash their check of justice and freedom. For it will be on that day, and only on that day, that freedom will truly ring. That will be the day all Americans will finally be able to say and mean Dr. King’s hopeful words he uttered so long ago from his podium at the capital,

“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”


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