Calling all white people, part 5: Misusing MLK

Calling All White People, Part 5

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Misusing MLK…Every Day

By God, we sure do like to invoke the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (a.k.a. MLK) a lot, don’t we? And by “we” I don’t mean the collective “we” of humanity—I mean we white people. And by “invoke,” I mean mostly posting MLK quotes online.

So often when a liberal (or moderate) white person wants to appear sensitive, progressive and enlightened, out comes an MLK quote. When someone is feeling a bit uncomfortable with Black activism and wants to “correct” Black people on the scope or level of their behavior (be they outright protests or even mild rebukes toward whitefolk), out comes an MLK quote.

Hell, when outright racists or ignorant trolls want to act the fools, out come the MLK quotes. Better yet, out come MLK quotes along with statements like “If Martin Luther King were alive today, I think he’d be supporting/defending Jeff Sessions and criticizing John Lewis.” (the former being Trump’s attorney general nominee who has a history of racism; the latter being a Black U.S. representative who got beaten up and arrested many times protesting and standing up for what’s right during the Civil Rights-era…if you think MLK would be pro-Jeff Sessions you need some history and/or immediate medical assistance).

But as so often happens, I digress. I’m writing this post on MLK Day; I know BGIM won’t be posting this until sometime after MLK Day, but still, context matters. (BGIM decided this post should run on MLK Day) 

This post was inspired by a humorous fake quote meme I saw on social media with a picture of MLK and this inset with the photo:

“White people, stop quoting me.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.

The problem isn’t that MLK isn’t eminently quotable. He is. But all too often, and mostly by white people, his quotes are misused over and over.

We love to share the feel-good ones but ignore the more pointed ones like this:

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’ “Councilor” 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 direst action” who paternistically 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.

That’s from MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” by the way. We white people should do a lot more reading and sharing of that and a lot less of the “I have a dream” speech.

Point is, we need to stop trotting out MLK for the most part, my fellow whitefolk. Sure, there will be times it’s meaningful, particularly when we need to put someone in their place because they’re misusing MLK and need a quote more representative of MLK’s overall and long-term views. Because so many of us who are white don’t know crap about MLK. We see him as this peaceful, soft-spoken man who wanted peace above all else.

But in truth, while he preached non-violent protest, he didn’t preach peace. He preached fundamental change. Upsetting the apple cart. Rewriting society. He wanted not just an end to racism but to reshape capitalism itself because of the way it mistreats the average worker—among other radical social views he held that would uproot most of what we’ve grown accustomed to in this country.

So, think twice before you go quoting MLK or saying you know how he would feel or act regarding some situation or issue when you have only the barest, thinnest knowledge of what he stood for. And I say this as someone who himself has a pretty low-level, basic knowledge of MLK’s  life and times. But the thing is, knowing that about myself, I also don’t go around invoking him. That said, while I may not be an expert, I am eminently qualified to tell y’all that most of you who share my “pale persuasion” skin tone know less than me and really should tread lightly around summoning MLK into any conversation, whether online or off.

And despite my lack of deep knowledge, at least I can say, unlike most white people, that I’ve read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and now, I’d really suggest most of you do, too. Right now. Peace
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