Why I'm Uneasy with Martin Luther King Day

From: Ronny Koch ([email protected])

I remember when Martin Luther King Day was first declared a
Federal holiday, how Arizona’s Governor Meecham repealed the
previous governor’s 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, I’m
having some trouble with Martin Luther King Day myself.

One of the more painful things I’ve 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
I’ve 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.

You’re so angry! The white person accuses.

I can’t support Black Lives Matter, the white person complains.
It doesn’t have the moral leadership of Martin Luther King.
Or–my (least) favorite: What would Martin Luther King think of
what You People are doing? (To which the rational answer–which
I have seen made–can only be, “We’ll never know; You People
killed him.”)

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 here–his non-violence, or our hope to continue our
lives without being inconvenienced by protests, shamed by
justifiable anger, or disturbing life inside our comfortable
white bubbles?

Nonviolence–real non-violence–can be assertive and disruptive as
hell, something I notice a large number of us white folks don’t
want to acknowledge.

Likewise, it seems as though it’s 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, there’s 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.

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