For many people, the iconic image of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is him standing on a podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial on a sweltering August day in 1963, sharing his dream of racial equality in America.
Those who have never read or heard that entire speech may know only famous quotes captured in historical news clips, such as King’s longing for a nation where people are judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
As King is celebrated on MLK Day today, those familiar with the civil rights icon’s legacy, beyond just his March on Washington speech for racial and economic equality, say his words have been taken out of context to promote certain stances on divisive issues today.
“I’m concerned about how some people really misunderstand Dr. King’s message and have such a distorted view of an effort to include what’s been ignored about our nation’s history,” said Chuck Dickerson, a member of the NAACP’s Easton chapter.
Dickerson cited a Texas law passed in September that restricts how schools can teach about race-related topics. He also cited the controversy stirred in July when an organization donated books, which featured some stories from the viewpoints of people of color, to George Wolf Elementary in the Northampton Area School District.
“We’re now in an environment where some people are questioning the need to teach children in public schools a true and complete history of our country,” Dickerson said. “People are weaponizing their concerns against something Dr. King stood for, which is having history books include the struggles and contributions of people of color in America.”
A nationwide backlash from some parents argues against teaching “critical race theory,” which has become a catchall phrase used by people critical of ways schools are dealing with racial concepts. Some conservatives call this an effort to shame white children.
“Critical race theory goes against everything Martin Luther King Jr. taught us, [which is] to not judge others by the color of their skin,” Kevin McCarthy, Republican minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, tweeted in July. “The left is trying to take America backward.”
Northampton Area School Board member Doug Vaughn, whose school district was involved in the July book donation controversy, agreed.
“I don’t know enough about the books donated, but I oppose critical race theory because it promotes racism and divides people, similarly to the principles of Marxism,” Vaughn said. “Defining people as racist based on the color of their skin is inherently wrong and immoral. I do not think Dr. King would support [this]. He was a peaceful man who supported national unity of all Americans regardless of their skin color, wealth or political affiliation.”
Ray Block Jr., associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Penn State, said teaching America’s racial history isn’t about shaming whites for being white.
“It’s about educating everyone on the reality of race relations in America and how, despite some progress that’s been made since Dr. King’s time, there’s still work we all must do together to improve those relations,” Block said.
Cherry-picking King’s quote about his dream of a color-blind society dangerously ignores the rest of his speech about the gap that still needs to be filled between that dream and reality, Block said.
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” King said in that same address. “The note was a promise that all men, Black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”
Though efforts by King and others have resulted in laws designed to prevent discrimination and guarantee rights, the default King spoke of continues today to a significant degree, Lehigh Valley activist Justan Parker Fields said. That led to the rise of Black Lives Matter, a nationwide grassroots movement for racial justice and equality.
Some call Black Lives Matter inconsistent with King’s philosophy of nonviolence, based on news coverage of riots and looting being associated with the movement. Former President Donald Trump called the movement a “symbol of hate” in a July tweet responding to a plan to paint the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in front of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.
“As a white person, you cannot communicate to a Black person your thoughts on Dr. King being against the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Fields organizer of the Lehigh Valley chapter of Black Lives Matter. “This is Black business. Dr. King, first and foremost, was Black. The equality that he preached about, although for all people, was about Black people. He wanted us to have equal footing to white people. So, as a white ally, your support should be just that. Support, without the criticism.”
“As nonviolent as Dr. King was, they still shoved a letter opener through his hand, threw him in jail, beat him and killed him,” he said. “You cannot place activism in a pretty box with a pretty bow filled with pretty people to fit a narrative. [Activism is] ugly. It’s sad. It’s courageous. It’s meaningful. It’s impactful. It’s violent. It’s nonviolent. It’s us.”
East Stroudsburg University history professor Christopher Brooks said people should be careful when applying King’s words.
“I’m left with the impression that both [those] who call Black Lives Matter a violent movement, and [those] who agree with people’s right to protest as long as the protesting doesn’t become violent, misuse Dr. King’s message concerning nonviolence vs. violence,” Brooks said. “And it’s largely because his words were uttered in a particular historical context which I’m not convinced is given due respect.”
Matthew Stein, an assistant visiting professor of politics, racial identity and social movements at Lafayette College, agreed, referencing King’s calling a riot “the language of the unheard” in a 1968 speech at Gross Pointe High School in Michigan.
“And what is it America has failed to hear?” King asked in that speech. “It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
In other words, King wasn’t condoning rioting, but simply stating it as an outcome of the country’s refusal to heed people of color’s concerns, Stein said.
On the other hand, some marginalized people are adopting a misled, dangerous view of looting as a form of taking reparations, or what’s owed to them for generations of being oppressed, Brooks said. King spoke about reparations, saying America helped European immigrants by giving them land to farm for themselves while denying Black former slaves the same path to self-sufficiency.
While the rage and frustration of oppressed people is certainly understandable, “Dr. King wouldn’t find any justification for the looting we saw in Chicago, where a Black Lives Matter organizer approved and encouraged looting as ‘reparations,’ ” Brooks said.
People in other movements, such as those for gender and gender identity equality, have cited King and other historical figures as inspirations, said the Rev. Dr. Larry Pickens, a former Allentown resident and executive director of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches.
“I don’t particularly have an issue with groups using Dr. King’s words or philosophy if that use is grounded in the context his ministry was about, which was human rights, nonviolence and dismantling systemic racism and racist structures,” Pickens said. “Overcoming oppression is something we as Americans are called to do and something we all ought to aspire to.”
Pickens and others agree what’s needed is a more complete view of King’s life, legacy and thoughts, including those putting him in a light that may be less comfortable for some to view.
“A lot of people tend to focus just on the King who spoke about his dream at the March on Washington in ‘63,” Dickerson said. “They don’t know or don’t like to focus on the King who was speaking out against American imperialism and U.S. involvement in Vietnam by the time he was assassinated in ‘68.”
King’s stances on issues such as Vietnam got him labeled by others as a “radical,” Stein, the Lafayette College professor, said.
“We have to remember that this man, whose birthday we now celebrate as a holiday, was a demonized, polarizing figure on the FBI’s list of threats at the time he was killed,” he said. “Some scholars are very aware of this. I’d suggest reading Erin Pineda’s book, ‘Seeing Like An Activist,’ which goes into this in more detail. Any positive changes we see credited to Dr. King result from radical struggle, not from a simple, quiet argument of policies on a congressional floor. I would like to see us recapture some of that radical legacy he left us.”