(January 13, 2023) — On Monday we commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
I loved stories about Martin Luther King, Jr. when I was a young person. I bought into the elementary school lessons about judging people by the content of their character, and not the color of their skin. By my late twenties, however, I became disillusioned. I began to feel that King’s legacy wasn’t radical enough. Despite how ethical, moral or good I was, as a descendent of formerly enslaved African and native peoples, I found myself unable to avoid the material conditions created by racialization and dispossession in the United States.
The era of Reaganism and neoliberalism I was born into had co-opted King’s analysis and propagandized it into a narrative of colorblindness, and overcoming interpersonal prejudice and discrimination. Nineteen days before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed, he spoke at a press conference in Anaheim California. His 1968 speech called up concern for where (white) America was headed. The passage of the Voting and Civil Rights Acts meant that those engaged in the struggle to realize a multiracial democracy might be tempted to rest on their laurels. “The problem can only be solved,” he said, “when there is a kind of coalition of conscience. Now I am not sure if we have that many consciences left. Too many have gone to sleep.” Underneath the whitewashed history lies admonitions to stay woke, organize through coalition, and reject the poisonous fog of lies of Black inferiority. A radical agenda indeed.
Today’s coalition of conscience must acknowledge that though we’ve made progress in areas, material conditions are worsening for everyone but the wealthy. We must, like King, reject individualistic strategies and advance systemic and structural transformation. We must understand, as King reflected in his address at Carnegie Hall, that though we have been liberated, the struggle for freedom endures.