2018-01-18 07:01:25 UTC
I remember when Martin Luther King Day was first declared a
Federal holiday, how Arizonas Governor Meecham repealed the
previous governors establishment of the holiday there, and how
Jesse Helms led opposition to it in Congress, on the grounds
that King was unpatriotic, a Communist sympathizer, and not
important enough to be honored with a holiday.
We all knew what they really meant, just as I knew what the
childhood friend who dismissed it as a black holiday was
calling black people in the privacy of his own mind. It was the
1980s, and it was pretty clear that what people who had trouble
with celebrating Martin Luther King Day really had trouble with
was racial justice.
Which is why it may seem odd that now, in the year 2016, Im
having some trouble with Martin Luther King Day myself.
One of the more painful things Ive observed, since I began
speaking out against racism, is the degree to which white people
have taken a sanitized, safe, domesticated version of Martin
Luther King into our hearts. I wish I had never seen this, but
Ive actually seen it more times than I care to count: a black
person speaks out against present-day racism and violence, and a
white person attempts to shame him into silence by invoking
Martin Luther King and what the white person is pleased to call
What about riots? The white person asks.
Youre so angry! The white person accuses.
I cant support Black Lives Matter, the white person complains.
It doesnt have the moral leadership of Martin Luther King.
Ormy (least) favorite: What would Martin Luther King think of
what You People are doing? (To which the rational answerwhich
I have seen madecan only be, Well never know; You People
And the definition of non-violence gets extended, almost
infinitely, to mean no disrupting political rallies, no blocking
traffic, no making unpleasant scenes at the mall. Non-
violence has become code for white people refusing to listen to
live black voices, in the name of a distorted version of a man
whose actual words we rarely bother to hear, beyond a sound-bite
or two from the I have a Dream speech.
Are we honoring Dr. King? Or are pretending that his death
marked the end of racism in America? What are we really
celebrating herehis non-violence, or our hope to continue our
lives without being inconvenienced by protests, shamed by
justifiable anger, or disturbing life inside our comfortable
Nonviolencereal non-violencecan be assertive and disruptive as
hell, something I notice a large number of us white folks dont
want to acknowledge.
Likewise, it seems as though its inconvenient for those of us
living in comfortable privilege to see that marginalization is
violence poverty is violence indifference to oppression is
violence. In fact, theres a whole range of ways it is possible
to be violent in our passivity. I hate to see us dumbing down
what nonviolence really means, bowdlerizing the legacy of Dr.
King, in the service of our immediate emotional comfort.