I practiced for weeks, and when the big day came I was ready.
My hair was styled in the way that Southern mamas do their daughters’ hair for special occasions—a pressed, puffy ponytail on top, with the rest hanging and curled beneath a large part, some ribbon probably lost to memory.
I felt special in my new white dress and shiny new shoes. And with the Mighty Mississippi River swaying behind me, whispering her stories on a soft breeze, I loudly recited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Natchez bluff.
Family and members of the community looked on, smiling and nodding with approval, because he was ours, the Dr. King of my youth. His serious, contemplative face staring from one side of the church fan while white Jesus looked on benevolently on the other. As a small child, I didn’t know about Malcolm’s Mosque No. 7 in Harlem, but I knew about Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta.
Dr. King was all there was. Just like white Jesus, though, whitewashed King was a big, white lie.
It was a lie that I took with me into my own conscious evolution. I sneered at his passiveness and mocked what appeared to be his docility in the face of indiscriminate, anti-black state-sponsored and -approved violence. As Malcolm said in “The Ballot or the Bullet”: “You can’t sing up on freedom. But you can swing up on some freedom.” I angrily pointed out the erasure of warrior women like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Diane Nash, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer from the leadership narrative. I grew tired of watching King, with his dreams of colorblind assimilation, be praised by those white folks who I knew to be enemies, so I started to view him as one, too.
I was tired of seeing torn suits and tear-stained faces remaining dignified in the face of vicious dogs, stinging water hoses and racist cops wielding batons with black-blood-thirsty glee. How well-behaved did we have to be before we dared to expect justice? How much proof did they need of our respectability before we could demand respect? And in my burgeoning radicalism, I saw King with his “Farce” on Washington as the face of a disconnected, middle-class, religion-based ideology that would have black people turning the other cheek until our necks snapped.
Then I realized that racist white people in America didn’t love King; they hated King, hated what he stood for and hated when he got free. They loved him for his silences and hated him for his voice. They hated when he stopped preaching about peace in the absence of justice, and instead focused on the capitalist and social hierarchy that privileged white Americans and oppressed black Americans.
That’s our Dr. King.
A King who not only understood that there would be no equality if inequities were not faced and dismantled, but who also understood that those in power knew it, too—and counted on us not knowing it. A man who called out white supremacy for the interlocking systems of oppression that it is without concerning himself with accusations that he was pulling the race or victim card.
In a Birmingham, Ala., jail (pdf) in 1963, he penned the following about the “riots” taking place:
You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. … I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.
One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all.
King wrote these words two years before the state-sanctioned murder of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson by white Alabama State Trooper James Fowler would be the impetus for Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala.
That’s our Dr. King.
Not only did he point out how the United States was built on racism, but in 1967 he pointed out the hypocrisy of mainstream media outlets that “applauded” his nonviolence stance across the Deep South but sought to censure his nonviolent stance on Vietnam:
I stood before thousands of Negroes getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, “We can’t do it this way.” They applauded us in the sit-in movement—we nonviolently decided to sit in at lunch counters. They applauded us on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama.”
… There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, “Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark,” but will curse and damn you when you say, “Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children.” There’s something wrong with that press!
That’s our Dr. King.
As we read through the years about a King we were never supposed to know, and certainly never revere, we understand why he was taken from us so soon with the complicity of the United States.
In 1968, in a small church in Mississippi, he stressed the importance of not just following the money but following the land.
… not only did [Congress] give [white farmers] land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms.
Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality.
Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.
He spoke these words three weeks before his assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Three weeks before his Poor People’s Campaign would take over the National Mall in D.C., demanding that check.
How many of us were taught as young children that King spoke out against police brutality? How many of us were taught that he was traveling the country exposing the link between capitalism and racism? How many of us were taught that he spoke out against imperialism and white supremacy? How many of us were taught that he was in the middle of a shift—if not in purpose, then in practice? How many of us were taught that he was a staunch supporter of Planned Parenthood, calling family planning for black America a “special and urgent concern”?
How many of us were taught that King was tired of singing?
I shared at the beginning of this piece that I recited King’s speech as a child. That’s not entirely true, though I believed it to be true at the time. See, we were just taught about his dream in school. We weren’t taught that the speech was initially titled, “Normalcy, Never Again.” We weren’t taught that he believed in the “fierce urgency of now.” We weren’t taught that he talked about “revolt” in the absence of justice. We weren’t taught about the King who said, “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ “
We weren’t taught that, after the March on Washington, even though many detractors called it a watered-down, federally approved spectacle, the FBI was worried enough to label King “the most dangerous Negro” in the country. We weren’t taught that.
So, as King said so many years ago, I want to get the language right tonight.
As the Black Youth Project 100's #ReclaimMLK actions begin across the country, I want to apologize publicly to Martin Luther King Jr. I want to apologize to a man who called for a “radical redistribution of political and economic power.” I want to apologize to a young man who was assassinated when he was just 39 years old—just a few years older than I am now—for not having more empathy for his journey, for not allowing space for him to be flawed and contradictory and human.
I want to apologize to a man who was as much student as he was teacher. A man who understood that we were born free and shackled later—and we have nothing to lose but our chains. A man who understood, even then, that in the face of state-sanctioned terror and economic inequity, there could be, by America’s corrupt standards, “normalcy, never again.”
Thank you, sir, for your love. Thank you for your life. Thank you for your legacy. May we all have the courage to lead by your revolutionary example.