Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day has passed, and I rarely comment on it, but a friend asked me to write about his legacy as a prolific civil rights leader. This friend compelled me to think critically about this day. I reflected on the symbol of Dr. King’s. For so many angry black activists, MLK as a symbol has been weaponized by institutions or people that perpetuate white supremacist ideas, especially in this modern era that is plagued with even more insidious institutions and displays of power. This article is meant to be more than a discussion on how Martin Luther King is used to pacify black people in the face of injustice. This article is to clarify some misconceptions and provide techniques of organizing, especially for racial and economic justice.
In an article written by the Establishment called The Exploitation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy by White Supremacy, the author made some really damning points about how instrumental Dr. King’s legacy is in silencing people of color. King was very much aware about the intersection between race and class. One of the biggest facets of King’s legacy that has been propagated by institutions that promote white supremacy is King’s exclusively nonviolent tactics. King has been used to suppress any expressions of anger against acts of anti-blackness, especially during the protest (rebellion) that took place in Ferguson and Baltimore after the deaths that claimed the innocent lives of Michael Brown and Freddie Carlos Grey.
Historians and different theorists of Dr. King’s Montgomery boycott say that the boycott lasted 381 days and had a very strong economic impact on the town of Montgomery. This is one of the main points that struck me as the methods the civil rights movement used. Dr. King is not the movement, he was a major player in the movement. When historical figures are immortalized instead of the movement we risk giving institutions that perpetuate inequalities a weapon. The memories of historical icons can be used as a weapon to silence future generations and continuously tokenize the experiences of black people in America.
Dr. King is a perfect case for why I believe that movements and leadership need to be faceless. I believe that ideal leadership of a movement is one that is faceless, meaning everyone is a leader playing their part in trying to create a different world, whether it’s by changing prejudiced patterns of behavior or elevating the voice of the voiceless.
Another thing that is not payed attention to is that the Montgomery boycotts were not a way for protestors to garner white sympathy. One of the issues of remonetizing Dr. King’s tactic of nonviolence is that it runs the risk of minimizing the economic impact that nonviolent tactics such as boycotting have.
Economic structures play a huge role in promoting ideas of racism and other social ills. I strongly believe that the future of organizing should be focusing on the intersections between the economic institutions and social justice. We need to get rid of the economic incentives that perpetuate racism and sexism. For example, private prisons use black and Latino male and female prisoners for cheap slave labor subjecting them to inhumane conditions. Many of the companies that use private prisons are commonly patronized.
Instead of promoting Martin Luther King as the avatar that saved America from itself, we should be critically engaging with the tactics of the civil rights movement, finding ways to better them and expand on them. At the same time, we also need to be alert to our figures being weaponized for the sake of exploitation.