Stop Asking ‘What Would MLK Do?’
It isn’t just on Martin Luther King 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-ed:
“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 out of context].”
“MLK would promote racial healing—not your words of anger and division.”
People want to retreat to easy answers, feel-good quotations, and rely on MLK’s work instead of our own. This convenient tactic lacks 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 lived a long life and died of old age.
Whatever wisdom we think MLK would bring to this moment 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 other than an indicting statement of fact: “You killed me.”
It’s so much easier to think of King's death as inevitable, as that of a martyr, a heroic end to a life of public service. We'd rather not consider the bullet that ripped through his face, entered his neck, and severed his spinal cord, causing a quick, bloody death on that concrete balcony. We like our pictures in black and white.
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.
Rather than think of King as a person, a husband, and a father, we like to think of him as the stone statue in DC—large, strong, unmovable. King's legacy may be all those things, but he was human. He 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, knew joy and pain.
Like most of us, King evolved in his thinking over time. He took a stand for racial justice and realized he could not talk about racial injustice without also addressing economic injustice. The more he talked about economic injustice in America, the more he recognized the underpinnings to military injustice around the world. King wasn’t a one-note leader. He didn’t have just one idea. The more he read, traveled, gained access to powerful, political spaces, he grew in his thinking and his passion for the disenfranchised.
So truth be told, we don’t know what King would say in 2016. Were he still alive, he would have continued to connect the dots, ask questions, dig in the Bible, and be a human committed to a cause. That’s how it works. We learn to interrogate our language and our assumptions. We learn to speak truth to ourselves and to power. We learn to confront, organize, write, speak, and seek greater change. We grow. But King’s ability to speak into the modern moment of white supremacy was violently interrupted. We can’t keep taking that for granted.
So the next time we are being MLK-ed, we could respond by giving context to a random quote thrown our way. We could offer a differing, lesse- known quote in response. We can extrapolate and postulate, for sure. (I’ve certainly done all the above.) But don’t hesitate to also 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, follow the immense leadership of civil rights leaders, and ultimately decide to 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 also acknowledging how his assassination is also our legacy until we decide that white supremacy has finally taken one body too many.
This piece originally appeared on Austin Channing’s blog and has been reprinted with permission.
Austin is a resident director and multicultural liaison for Calvin College 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. She tweets as @austinchanning.