Happy MLKish Day!!! The Unfortunate Exploitation of Dr King's Legacy

Today, across America people observed the birthday of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his various services to humanity. Our mutual fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc. has declared today as a day of service to our communities. Unfortunately, as is the usual outcome when we canonize people, but treat their actions, philosophies, and efforts like tertiary fodder, the true message and meaning of Dr King's work is lost and his identity has been co-opted to serve a stagnant and reactionary social agenda.

Given the current socio-political climate of the United States, many well-intentioned MLK Day organizers missed out on a golden opportunity to reflect on the content of MLKs book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, which pretty much predicted that it should be expected that a Donald Trump would follow a Barack Obama into the presidency, along with throngs of white supremacists marching for their rights. It would clarify why even the most liberal seeming of white people would unconsciously operate under the perceptions of white superiority/supremacy and white privilege. It also predicted that a person, like MLK, would have their image and message manipulated to cultivate passivity among Black people to the extent that they would never take a stand to the extent that Dr. King did.

MLK Day and his legacy have somehow been perverted into yet another opportunity for the well-intentioned to tell Black people what to think and how to think; often invoking contextually incorrect quotes and examples of Dr. King's works, as opposed to being an opportunity to further study, learn and grow from his rich legacy. Part of white privilege is the ability and expectation to be able to only embrace -or even tolerate- those elements of a culture or philosophy that appeal to them. Case in point, my son and I performed at an MLK event where he played the drums and I sang. He also played the drums and rapped. The majority of the people gathered seemed to enjoy and appreciate the performance, but one elderly woman took it upon herself to take me to task after the performance about the drumming and the kind of 'cultural' music she would have preferred. I believe my response was a bit unsatisfying as I explained that we were celebrating the fact that Black people no longer had to hide our cultural practices that offended white American sensibilities, largely due to the progress of the Civil Rights Movement. Her response was to point to the fact that Dr. King was a fan of spirituals, that did not have drumming. I replied that according to people who knew him from his BU days he was a fan of many forms of music, both with and without drums, and "I guess this is all part of MLK's legacy about being open to that which is different from yourself." Was what I said before excusing myself and moving on. One of the curious habits of some people is the ability to pluralize their point of view; whereby her distaste for drumming, 1) was something that she felt compelled to share with me; 2) presented her opinion as a reflection of Dr. King's musical tastes; 3) apparently felt that her opinion was not grounds for discussion, but something that I should absorb.

This year in Dallas, protest by the NAACP shut down the MLK Day observation, when organizers saw fit to invite Governor Greg Abbott as the keynote speaker. Abbott's political tenure routinely opposes many of the tenets of freedom, justice and equality that MLK represented, including his imposition of Gerry-Mandering exclusively in communities of color in an effort to frustrate the possibility of people block voting in their own interests. The fact that the organizers chose Abbott as the keynote speaker for an MLK Day event demonstrates how far removed these organizers are from the realities of MLKs legacy as well as their obvious removal from their their own constituency.

What also amazes (and occasionally amuses) me are the folks who organize MLK Day Events, or any social justice peace and freedom oriented event, and don't actually know any people of group directly effected by the situation, to participate in the activities; or make a token invitation . I remember seeing benefit concerts springing up all over with absolutely no direct involvement of any indigenous people in the planning or implementation; and thousands and thousands of dollars were sent to phony organizations claiming to be working on behalf of the water protectors.

Is it possible to have actual peace in society when you have no justice? Can you effectively address a subject, if you can only see the human beings involved as objects? Unfortunately, this is a concept that evades many well-intentioned people desperately in search of doing the right thing? Unlike movements like Save The Whales, Save The Seals, or Save The Glaciers; the foundation of the human rights struggle is the ability to recognize that the affected parties are human beings; which can make things rather awkward for the detached nature of most people in search of a Do Gooder fix. A lot of it can be blamed on the various Save The... movements that have become staples among television commercials. "... for the price of a cup of coffee you can... we'll even send you pictures and letter written by the child you sponsor..." For a monthly or annual credit card charge, you have bringing rights to the change your making in a third-world child's life. I can't tell you how many times I've been to a social event where somebody feels compelled to tell me about how they sponsor a child in Africa or hosted a child (once) for the Fresh Air Fund. Apparently, this has replaced the conversation standard, "... some of my best friends are..."

Social media also accounts for the detached element as well, where folks mistake ranting and venting on their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts as social organizing. The distance factor is what makes moral outrage easy without it being inconvenient. For example, the response of people in New England who were outraged over the water issue in Standing Rock was tremendous. However, the response of these same people to social and environmental issues adversely effecting local, indigenous people and communities were not as much of interest or concern. Gerry-Mandering remains a remarkable issue in New England but is rarely addressed as entire communities of low-income folks and people of color are re-districted in such a fashion that folks will never be able to vote in their own interests. Case in point, 7th Congressional District is voted in almost entirely by Somerville, but a good chunk of Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Randolph, Chelsea and Everett are under the district's purview as well. I remember attending a meeting in 1999 of The State of Young Black Boston where the guest speaker was the congressman of that district who basically bragged to the young people present that he was not beholden to them at all to get elected as the voting block in Somerville had and would continue to get him elected. This immediately confirmed the truth for me in the content of Malcolm X's "Bullet or the Ballot" speech.

The unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of people who are and remain unaffected by the socio-political dynamics of American society -primarily race and class- honestly don't want change to come about as much as they want to feel good about themselves. So they make signs with catchy slogans, dust off the protest songs from the 1960's, bundle up and gather to have peace marches and vigils, or organize breakfasts and brunches where they bring in people to speak about the MLK legacy. Unfortunately, their actually commitment to change or the philosophies that they are celebrating usually end with their last sip of tea or hot cocoa at the post rally repass, or with their departure from the church or community hall.

Ironically, if the purpose of remembering Dr King did almost entirely focus on his work in civil rights, and actually contemplated, addressed and presented his ideas an activities in the areas of poverty, anti-war movements, and class struggles (let us not forget that he was in Memphis to support the garbage worker's strike), it would almost make sense to plan an event in his honor and fail to consider seeking out and engaging people of color to participate. Sadly, Dr. King and his rich legacy fall under a larger American tradition, which is to view Black Americans and all that they produce as commodities to be exploited.

Perhaps the best solution would be to employ the suffix "ish" to the events; indicating that it 'has similar properties, but is not exactly the authentic entity' so we could have MLKish Day. It's an idea that has about as much merit as a lot of the celebrations I've seen over the past thirty years.