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Martin Luther King, Jr. Doesn’t Belong to You

Many have laid claim to the civil rights legend, obscuring the radicalism of his message.

Gabriella Demczuk / Stringer, Getty Images

A young person coming of age in the last few generations, particularly if she or he is black, may have seen more images of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. than anyone, even if we count depictions of Jesus Christ. They would have seen his image adorning cheaply framed portraits above a mantle or the old church calendars that hung in a grandmother’s kitchen, browning from age as they stayed affixed to the refrigerator long past December due to pride. (You see the same thing happening to a lot of Obama photos in black homes today.) 

King’s soft, fleshy face, either painted with a celestial glow or photographed in black and white, was often depicted looking off into the distance as if in reflection or mourning. We’d see that face move in familiar footage that typically went into heavy rotation right around this time of year, especially with the inevitable broadcast of his 1963 speech at the March on Washington. We’d sit rapt, our voices exhausted by the singing of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and “We Shall Overcome” at our church commemorations, and we’d listen. Hearing about his dream again would be as if we were taking up a New Year’s resolution anew every January to end racism. Once the commemoration of his birthday was first observed as a holiday, King not only became more image than man. He became ritualized.

The same as Jesus, King is often celebrated incompletely. Princeton professor Eddie Glaude, speaking Sunday at the WNYC MLK Day event at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, referred to those who might “empty his radical witness.” Even as contemporary historians and artists such as Michael Eric Dyson and Ava DuVernay have offered fuller pictures of King the human being in recent years, our nation’s Eurocentric historical narratives continue to do their work to a man who was, in his time, one of the foremost threats to structural racism and inequality. Our rituals, while comforting and inspiring, lulled the American public into a lionization of a complicated man whose advocacy for economic justice and labor—and against war—are not always part of the story. As long as King’s radicalism stays missing from our remembrances, it will be easier for people to lay claim to his story—even people who oppose everything King actually stood for.

One group of young leaders used this holiday weekend to adopt the King tradition in full. The Black Youth Project 100, a Chicago-based movement collective that trains and mobilizes activists between the ages of 18 and 35, staged #ReclaimMLK actions in several cities. The protests, per BYP100 digital strategist Fresco Steeze, aimed to “build a narrative that when we want to celebrate radical history, movement history, we don’t have to have this cookie-cutter narrative that America wants us to have for our black movement leaders. We can celebrate the fact that they fought.” The actions, Steeze said, were also in coordination with the forthcoming release of their new Agenda to Build Black Futures, an economic-justice document advocating for reparations, worker’s rights, divestment from policing and prisons, and workplace protections for women and trans employees. 

This is right in line with King’s critiques of capitalism. I’d imagine that if we had the young King of the 1950s and 1960s in our midst today, he’d be in Flint, Michigan, shining light on the water contamination crisis in a poor, majority-black town, brought about by politicians prioritizing money over lives. Looking at what is happening there and in cities like Chicago, it is refreshing to see the magical unifier version of King sidelined and receive a reminder of the radical.

“Our actions are taking place in a weekend when there will be a number of service projects over the country, politicians telling stories about what they did during the civil rights movement, and people telling a sanitized version of what Dr. King did and leveraging [his] story for their own interests,” said BYP100 national director Charlene Carruthers. She added that King’s legacy could be taken up by generations of people who are truly invested in the long-term fight for black liberation. Revering him isn’t bad, she told me, when we revere the whole picture. 

“I think what’s really important is that there is a very sanitized, hero, peaceful, non-critical depiction of Dr. King. In fact, he was a human who struggled with many things,” Carruthers said. “It’s extremely important that we depict him … as someone who had a firm critique of the American empire.”

Instead, what we too often get is King positioned in holiday specials and commemorations as some kind of racial Santa Claus, and his birthday presented as the one day on our calendar designated for us to indulge in this kind of blind hope for racial justice. Yes, the day has been converted, as Carruthers noted, into a national day of service in which we’re told that we honor King by doing his work. But this blurring of history, particularly in schools, should also be our focus, given that it has opened the possibility for King to be viewed as some Christ-like savior for black America. Such framing implies that we need a sole leader to guide us, and it helps actual enemies of his goals say that they, too, were with King all the way. It allows those enemies to then insist that unless a black civil rights activist behaves like the King that they’ve conjured in their selective memories, then that activist isn’t truly pro-civil rights.

All the while, Republicans tweet out flowery statements on MLK Day and even insist that King was one of them, ignoring that the GOP is a different party today than it was then and that King would likely oppose their policies fervently. It’s nearly as annoying to see white politicians on the left proclaim their allegiance to King—and sometimes, their presence at one of his marches—as a substitute for substantive racial justice platforms. 

King’s employment as a contemporary racial status symbol is both talisman and shield for a more self-interested agenda that serves to either actively regress the reverend’s work or disregard its complexities.

These are just some of people from whom the BYP100 and other black liberation groups seek to “reclaim” King’s legacy from: the opportunistic co-opters on the right, yes, but also the lazy historians and even, in some respect, the black pastors who would seek to pick up where King left off. No one can truly own King or his work, in a figurative sense.

Leaving aside the no-one-can-own-a-human-being obviousness inherent in the argument, it is impossible to replicate his work to combat racial injustices that look familiar but take place in an America King helped to change. Being inspired by or taking direction from King’s example is entirely different than claiming ownership of his legacy. It also inevitably centers one person in a struggle in which he surely stood out, but of which he remains one of a legion of activists—Bayard Rustin, Amelia Boynton, Fannie Lou Hamer, and others whose work is driven further into obscurity when we focus so intently upon one leader. A movement is not a man, and we enable the perverse efforts by many conservatives and other backers of the racial status quo to claim the mantle of civil rights advocacy when we argue over who owns King. It’s the fight that these enemies of racial progress want, frankly. 

In a 1963 sermon entitled “How Should a Christian View Communism?,” King himself offered a religious argument against claiming the leader rather than the cause. “We need to pledge ourselves anew to the cause of Christ,” he said. “We must recapture the spirit of the early church. Wherever the early Christians went, they made a triumphant witness for Christ. Whether on the village streets or in the city jails, they daringly proclaimed the good news of the gospel.” We should never equate King with Christ, of course, but the purpose of his message surely applies to his own life, and should resonate with those who pledge to uphold his legacy.

This is why I initially had my doubts about the purpose of the BYP100 #ReclaimMLK tag—then I learned that Carruthers felt similarly.

“No one should own Dr. King’s legacy,” she told me. “At best, our work has the potential to help broaden the narrative about who he was and what he fought for—and more importantly, going forward, what other people should fight for. The ‘reclaiming’ is absolutely about moving people forward into his critique about capitalism and moving into a world without poverty.” 

I suspect that the good Reverend would agree.