It isn’t just on MLK Day that we watch it unfold. It happens with national race incidents. It happens in heated conversations. It happens in tweets and Facebook comments. If you are someone who regularly hosts dialogues on race, this has surely happened to you — being MLK’d.
“MLK would never condone those rioters.”
“MLK would tell all of us that we just need to seek peace and unity.”
“MLK said… [insert quote taken entirely out of context]”
“MLK would promote racial healing — not your words of anger/division.”
I could probably fill a whole page with this, but you know what I’m talking about. It’s what happens when people want to retreat to easy answers, feel-good quotations, and rely on MLK’s work instead of our own.
This behavior is awfully convenient and void of authenticity and understanding. If we truly valued the life work of Martin Luther King Jr., we would stop trying to predict “what MLK would say now” as if he died of old age. Whatever wisdom we think MLK would bring to this moment in 2016 seems to often discount that he was assassinated on a balcony, taken from his wife, his children, his friends. Why do we think MLK would say anything to us other than an indicting statement of fact, “You killed me”?
But that doesn’t make us feel good. Its so much easier to think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death as inevitable, as that of a martyr, a hero’s end to a life of public service. We’d rather not consider the bullet that ripped through his face. We don’t like to talk about how his spinal cord was so severed that his death was rather quick. We don’t talk about his blood spilling from his body onto the concrete balcony. We like our pictures in black and white.
Because to feel what his wife felt
To feel what his children felt
To feel what his friends felt
To feel what his supporters felt
is to invite pain over celebration, rage over rousing speeches, devastating loss over convenient platitudes.
We do this because we don’t really like to think of Martin Luther King Jr. as a person, a husband, a father. We like to think of him as the stone statue in DC — large, strong, unmovable. While Martin Luther King’s legacy may be all those things, it turns out he was human. He was a human who read lots of books, listened to lots of preachers, worked on the craft of writing and speaking. He was a human who laughed and cried. Who felt great pain and experienced great joy. Like most of us humans, Martin Luther King Jr. evolved in his thinking over time. He took a stand for racial justice, and realized he could not talk about racial injustice without also talking about economic injustice. The more he talked about economic injustice in America, the more he recognized the underpinnings to military injustice around the world. Martin Luther King Jr. was not one note. He didn’t have just one thought. As he traveled, as he gained access to powerful, political spaces, as he read more and more… Martin Luther King Jr. continued to grow in his thinking and his passion for the disenfranchised.
So truth be told, we don’t know what Martin Luther King Jr. would say in this moment in 2016. Because had we not killed him, he would have continued to evolve, to grow, to connect the dots, to ask questions, to dig in the Bible, to be a human committed to a cause. Thats how it works. We learn to interrogate our language, our assumptions. We learn to speak truth to ourselves and to power. We learn to confront, to organize, to write, to speak, to seek greater change. We grow. But Martin Luther King’s ability to speak into the modern moment of white supremacy was violently interrupted. We cant keep taking that for granted.
So the next time we are being MLK’d, we could respond by giving context to a random quote thrown our way. We could offer a differing, lesser known quote in response. We can extrapolate and postulate, for sure. (I’ve certainly done all the above.) But don’t hesitate to also take a moment to acknowledge the real man, made of flesh and blood, who was murdered at the age of 39 because his leadership represented such a threat to the status quo.
This is the period at the end of every sentence MLK ever spoke. America had a chance to mobilize, to follow the immense leadership of Civil Rights leaders, to decide white supremacy needed to die a violent death. But that’s not what happened. And here we sit, celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr., but never without acknowledging how his assassination is also our legacy until we decide that white supremacy has finally taken one body too many.
Austin Channing Brown is a Resident Director and Multicultural Liaison for Calvin College (Grand Rapids, Mich.) by day and a writer by night. She is passionate about the work of racial justice and reconciliation, especially as modeled and led by women. This first appeared on her blog, austinchanning.com.