While the country celebrates the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is hard for us here to not just consider his birth but to also pivot to his death.  As a result, this is the day soaked with the kind of emotion that places us vividly once again in the events of April 4, 1968.  The assassination struck America like a bomb, but in Memphis, it was a hydrogen one.

It blew up the fiction of racial harmony, it produced a gaping hole in our self-confidence, and it triggered a self-examination that continues even today.  Even as a 19-year-old college student standing in front of my dorm at Memphis State University and watching the smoke climb in the distant sky, I understood that things would never be the same.

And they haven’t been.

Creating A Sanitized Dr. King

Dr. King’s words continue to inspire and mobilize, particularly when they are interpreted accurately through a revolutionary lens.  In the intervening years, his legacy has been sanitized and his words have been toned down to the extent that they are now quoted by people to justify actions that he clearly would have abhorred.

Dr. King was a Biblical figure.  He was a prophet and a Man of God whose message was dismissed by some whose hatred consumed them and ultimately led to his sacrifice on the altar of equal rights and social justice, another Messiah dying for our sins.   

He’s also often like the watered down version of Jesus so prevalent in Christianity today – no longer a revolutionary attacking the established order or advocating for the poor, the marginalized, the imprisoned, and the immigrant – but transformed by many to rationalize blind capitalism, persecution of the other, and the use of Bible as a cudgel to attack others.

Today, we rarely hear about Dr. King’s willingness to pursue a heightened level of confrontation and to reject the blinding language of American exceptionalism while calling for meaningful resistance.  In the last year of his life, he was clearly in the midst of an evolution, and it is painful to imagine how different America might be if the revolutionary Martin Luther King Jr. had lived.

“It may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” he said at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march on March 25, 1965.  Two years later, on April 4, 1967, he said: “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

Liberation Comes From Power

It is an irony of the Christianization of slavery that while white society was pushing paintings of a European, rather than a Semitic, Jesus, the African American ministers of the day like Dr. King saw Jesus for what he was – a dark-skinned revolutionary – and a century later, they saw Dr. King for what he was – an insurgent and resistance fighter.

Today is also a day to reflect on other thinkers whose philosophy inspired Dr. King.  Our own Ida B. Wells: “That (the Memphis lynchings) is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was – an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.”

Union and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph said: “True liberation can be acquired and maintained only when the Negro people possess power.  And power is the product and flower of organization…of the masses” and “At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats.  You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold.  If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything.  And you can’t take anything without organization.”

And an appropriate quote for whites on this special day, by Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson: “What better way to use white privilege than to undermine it, raise questions about it, leverage it on behalf of black and brown people, who don’t usually have a voice in the matter at all.”

Morality Calls For Action

If Dr. King’s legacy teaches us anything, it is that morality requires action, action drives change, and much, much more progressive change is needed today.

Just think: when Dr. King was killed in Memphis, white households here earned twice as much as African American families.  They still do today.

And that’s despite African Americans increasing their high school graduation rate from 15% to 86% and the percentage of bachelor’s degrees from 4% to 20%, and while the percentage of African Americans with white collar jobs was rising from about 8% to 53%.

Since Dr. King’s death, the poverty rate for African Americans in Memphis has decreased by 32% but remains three times more than the white poverty rate.  The black child poverty rate is more than four times the white child poverty rate.

Unemployment among African Americans has gotten worse, doubling since Dr. King’s murder, and the percentage of African American men not in the labor force has not improved.  The percentage of African Americans in jail or prison has doubled.

White Memphis often acts incredulous that its African American neighbors are disturbed and angry about the income and opportunity inequality that remains built into the local economy.

The statistics tell a story of too little progress for too long, and today, Dr. King’s life reminds us that accepting the status quo is often unthinkable.  That is legacy of his life we should honor today. 


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