We started this week by commemorating the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Like many other Penn students, I worked on a service project and proceeded to enjoy my day off. But then I got to thinking about the point of the holiday and the man himself.
My earliest memories of observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day are from elementary school. Through a variety of activities like watching Our Friend Martin and being read Rosa Parks picture books, my classmates and I were able to piece together the following: one day a tired middle-aged black woman named Rosa Parks had finally had enough and refused to give up her seat on a bus. She partnered with Dr. King to boycott the cities buses, and ten years later he would lead a march on Washington D.C, and the rest was history. As the RNC would tweet roughly half a century later, racism had been ended.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see that Martin Luther King Jr. and the events in which he found himself embroiled were far more complex than popular lore suggests, and positing his life and times as a morality tale designed to make us feel good about how far we’ve come is not without consequences. It misrepresents the fact that the Freedom Struggle was a multigenerational movement that encompassed a wide range of people and organizations with often-conflicting agendas and ideologies that frequently came into tension with one another. It contributes to an understanding of racism and racial inequality that is primarily based on the thoughts actions of individuals as opposed to broader social processes and institutions. It also obscures the collective action necessary for long-lasting and impactful social change by attributing the gains of the Civil Rights Movement to the leadership and efforts of Dr. King.
In reality, and unlike what is often told, Rosa Parks was not the first black person to refuse to give up her seat –she was just more compatible with conceptions of middle-class respectability, and it helped that she worked as a secretary for the local branch of the NAACP. The idea for a march on Washington had actually been proposed twenty-years before the one Dr. King led, as an attempt union activist A. Phillip Randolph made to intimidate Franklin Roosevelt into guaranteeing fair employment practices for blacks as the nation mobilized for war.
Perhaps most shockingly of all, I learned that Martin Luther King Jr. was not the only leader of the Civil Rights Movement and actually worked alongside many other people like Fannie Lou Hammer, John Lewis, Ella Baker, and Bayard Rustin. The fact that he was a heterosexual, college-educated, relatively attractive man probably helped him Americans move him to the forefront and conveniently forget his opposition to the Vietnam War, criticisms of capitalism, Poor People’s Campaign and strong support for organized labor.
None of these things seem to penetrate our discussions or understandings of Dr. King, and I don’t think they’re supposed to. Martin Luther King Jr. Day serves to propagate a simplistic tale and commemorate a legendary figure adapted from the life of a real man. When Ronald Reagan signed the bill designating Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday in 1983, he regaled those present with the story I had learned in second grade.
Dr. King undeniably was an extraordinary man who accomplished many great things over the course of his life. But rather than celebrate this, we have transformed him into a larger-than-life figure and given him the magical ability to serve as justification for virtually any policy position imaginable and act as a sort of litmus test to gauge contemporary race-relations. Dr. King’s beliefs and actions were not created in a vacuum; they were the result of a man trying to make sense of his world, and they evolved in response to events and changing circumstances. So if we really want to move our society closer to the Beloved Community that Dr. King and his colleagues envisioned, we should stop only looking at things he said in the 1960s and instead try to make sense of our contemporary world.
Abel McDaniels is a College sophomore from Lawrenceville, N.J. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.