One of my favorite parts of high school were the years that I spent in the Student Theater Outreach Program (STOP). STOP was a group that used the performing arts to teach about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s message of nonviolence and racial reconciliation. We wrote and performed skits and spoken word, sang gospel songs (“I sing because I’m happy/ I sing because I’m free) and the South African national anthem, choreographed African dance routines, and demonstrated the six steps of Kingian nonviolence.
I joined the group not because I had a particularly lovely singing voice, was a graceful dancer, or a convincing actor. Nor did I join because I was moved to spread Dr. King’s message. My mother, a teacher of Black History Studies for decades, used to drag my brothers and I to the annual King Day celebration our city hosted, and while I found it to be more tolerable than Sunday church service, I still would have preferred to keep my Black ass at home.
So if it wasn’t a desire to be on stage, nor was I motivated by the good doctor himself, then why did I join STOP?
It started with this one boy, let’s call him K.C. He was foine! God should’ve known better than to make a 16 year old boy look that good. I realize after typing that last sentence that I sound super creepy. However, I was channeling my inner 13 year old girl, so that should make it okay. But I digress. K.C. was teenage boy perfection in my mind (and almost every other girl’s too), tall, deep voiced, with the flyest flat top fade around. Although he was the one who got me interested in STOP, it was JMP who made me join. He was four years older than me, didn’t know I was alive, and I would have done anything and gone anywhere just to breathe his air.
To be in their presence twice a week, I convinced my parents to drive me across town to hours long rehearsals and write excuse notes to let me out of school to show off my marginal talents at area high schools where STOP was invited to perform. My years in STOP not only allowed me to stare longingly at K.C. and J.M.P. (and a host of other cuties), they also gave me a greater appreciation and understanding of the man that brought us all together. This understanding of Dr. Martin Luther the King made me realize that he actually isn’t understood at all.
The universally celebrated and revered Dr. King of today never existed. In death he became what he never was when alive: beloved. We have all read or heard his “I Have a Dream speech” and get all the feels at this section:
“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four 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.
I have a dream today.”
And whenever anger or violence erupts we like to comfort ourselves with this quote:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
In need of inspiration? Try this one on for size:
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
It is easy to spend today “remembering” words of non violence and love, while comforting ourselves with 50 years of “progress.” I mean, we can all use the same bathrooms and water foundtains now so yay to Dr. King for marching, singing “We Shall Overcome,” giving a speech, and ending racism. Plus we get a day off work to honor all that he did. We’re so evolved.
But how many of us remember or even know this Dr. King?
How many people who always cite “judge people by the content of their character” also paraphrase these words from Letter From a Birmingham Jail:
“First, I must confess that over the past 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 his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for 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.”
I would wager my emergency fund that many who are celebrating King’s legacy today aren’t mentioning this part of it. While it is definitely a good thing that we can all be served at the same lunch counter, let us not think that that is where Dr. King’s advocacy ended.
“For we know now, that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”
King said these words in March 1968, a month before his murder. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. However, MLK Jr was not assassinated until April 4, 1968. His assassination was not a delayed response to his role in dismantling legal segregation. He was killed in Memphis, TN while in town to support striking black sanitation works and three weeks prior to the kickoff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s “Poor People Campaign.” The face of the Civil Rights movement was not murdered because he advocated for racial justice. Instead, his death was precipitated by his realization that racial justice could not exist without economic justice.
And to that end we still fall far too short of King’s dream. While we all participate in congratulatory circle jerks over debt paid, net worth increases, and early retirement we forget that race still plays way too heavy of a factor in one’s ability to reach these goals.
Don’t believe me? Consider this. Income is the primary tool for building wealth. However, access to income is not equal. Although Black unemployment fell to 6.8% in December 2017, its lowest level since the Department of Labor started tracking the rate in 1972, it is still 1.85 higher than the unemployment rate for white people, which is 3.7%. While some would only point to high school graduation rate discrepancies (which close substantially when factoring in GED attainment) to explain the gap, they would miss the fact that regardless of qualifications, it is more difficult for Black people to find employment. Studies have repeatedly shown that applicants with culturally Black names have to submit 50% more resumes before getting a callback than identically qualified applicants with traditionally white sounding names. Even more disturbing is the fact that a Black man with no criminal record has an equal to slightly worse chance of receiving an interview than a white man with a felony conviction.
Even after we have jumped through the additional hoops to secure employment, Black workers are still paid less than their white counterparts, and that gap actually increases with education. This compensation gap may be influenced by bias in employee evaluations that determine raises and promotions. For example, in the legal field, a study conducted by leadership consulting firm Nextion found that attorneys who were given a legal memo to review rated it more harshly when told it was written by a Black associate versus a White one.
In the work place, one of the most critical advantages any employee can have is the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, way too often this benefit is not extended to everyone equally. I have seen (and sometimes been) Black employees labeled as in need of further development when making the same mistakes that get their white peers labeled as risk takers who are trying to learn. I know from firsthand experience how stressful and exhausting it is to feel as though any misstep will impact your end of year review or that the fate of other Black recruits rests upon your performance.
After taking longer to find a job, then getting paid 70-82% of what our white peers do, we get to face higher amounts of student loan debt (almost double the average debt load of a white graduate four years after graduation thanks to interest), lower credit scores due to this higher debt load and the way credit is assessed (e.g. paying your rent on time isn’t part of your score until you don’t pay your rent on time), and higher interest rates even when we have comparable credit worthiness (I’m looking at you Bank of America, Toyota, Countrywide, and way too many others to name). It’s no wonder that the average White family holds ten times the wealth of Black households. And the usual scapegoats of family structure and education don’t fix it.
I realize that reading this has probably killed your “I have a dream and the day off” high. You might even be wondering why I’m bringing up all of this on a day when we’re supposed to be celebrating racial equality.
One of the most insidious tricks that has been played on society was the attribution of racism to moral failing. Chattel slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and worse supposedly were the deeds of bad people.
These protestors who shouted and threw things at six year old Ruby Bridges were loving parents, devoted teachers, active citizens, and just as normal as anyone today.
Simplifying racism as the domain of bad people gives rise to cognitive dissonance, specifically the idea that if one is a good person they cannot make racist statements, commit racist acts, or tacitly ignore and condone racism around them. The data I cited was not performed on lab rats. It captured the behavior of real human beings in their everyday lives.
Race based discrimination that impairs the ability of Black people to build wealth is alive and well fifty years after Dr. King’s death. While it is convenient to think that it’s someone else, anti-Blackness has existed since the 1600s and no one (regardless of race) is immune from its affects. It is naive to think that five decades of policy can erase four centuries of socialization.
I struggle with this holiday because I feel as though Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy has been co-opted and sanitized to the point of benign sainthood. It is far too easy to stand on the right side of history in hindsight. The people who now use Dr. King’s words as a cudgel against those who would continue his fight for equality would have called him a race baiter and outside agitator during the height of his activism.. Martin Luther the King Jr. was no saint. He was a radical who had a 63% unfavorable rating in 1966. While alive he consistently received letters that sound eerily familiar today.
Pretending that he was beloved by all does a disservice to his memory and more importantly the progression of his life’s work. I love that we have a day to honor Dr. King’s legacy. I only ask that we do it in truth.
However, in deference to the peaceful, reconciliatory, hopeful part of Dr. King’s message, I will conclude this post on an upbeat note.
You can skip the canonization and get to the music at the :53 mark. Watch it for the song (which I dare you not to jam out to), but treasure it for the jheri curls, Whitney Houston’s sweater (and being too cool to even film with the rest of the artists), and El De Barge’s dancing.
Did you recognize the Martin Luther King that I have come to know? What did you do to celebrate MLK Day this year? Did you ever join after school activities to get closer to your crush? As always leave your thoughts in the comments.
P.S. I ran into JMP the summer before my freshman year of college and we totally made out in a stairwell. #worththewait #patiencepaysoff #latebloomer #thelonggame #Iwin
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