On this day 50 years ago, an unarmed black man was shot to death by a white man.
If it happened today, you would probably scroll past his name on one of your social media platforms, and it would look like this:
When you look at the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination from that perspective, it makes it pretty clear that African-Americans are still dealing with the same exact issues that we faced half a century ago.
Throughout this day, you will see people who have no idea what King actually stood for, or would have hated him if he was still alive right now, do what they love to do annually on his national holiday: misrepresent his message.
Donald Trump, Mike Pence, GOP members, and anyone else who has ever denounced, voted or legislated against equality, humanitarian efforts, immigration, or failed to attack racism on every front, or opposed gun control, will more than likely release a statement or tweet their favorite King quote that they deem suitable for the day.
Their hypocrisy is a slap in the face to one of the greatest spirits to walk this earth. King was 39 when he was assassinated, and if that version of him was alive today, he’d be public enemy number one.
But, people love to forget that part.
“I think people only discovered after his death that he was more radical than they actually knew,” said Clifford Alexander, Chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a recent HBO Documentary titled, “King in the Wilderness.”
For all the “I Have a Dream” speech references that will be incorrectly used today, I’m here to remind you that the speech was given at a march that focused on job rights and the economy due to all the challenges and inequalities African-Americans were still dealing with 100 years after emancipation.
But while the “I Have a Dream” speech is thought to be King’s most popular one, there’s a section from an open letter he wrote a few months earlier called “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that foreshadowed a foe that African-Americans have been hampered by since slavery: the white moderate.
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Today’s version of the white moderate aren’t the ones that showed up in Charlottesville, wear “Make America Great Again” hats, or still have Confederate flags flying from their front porch.
No, the modern white moderates are the ones that “don’t see color,” try to advise people of color on the “right ways” to protest, and would prefer it if athletes would “stick to sports.”
Fifty years later, and they still don’t understand that by not seeing a person’s color, you don’t see the inequalities they face on a daily basis.
They also forget that King was arrested multiple times for protesting.
Their willful ignorance won’t allow them to realize that King would be kneeling next to Colin Kaepernick, and calling out NFL owners for not signing free agent Eric Reid because he knelt side-by-side with Kaepernick to bring awareness to police brutality during a song whose third stanza supports slavery.
“He speaks to this generation clearly, as if he was in yesterday’s morning paper,” added Rev. Jesse Jackson in the documentary. “His strategies, his philosophy, his world views, remain real today.”
King would be an advocate for athletes such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant who refuse to “shut up and dribble.”
“Dr. King was in my mind and heart when I raised my fist on that podium,” John Carlos was quoted as saying in a 2010 Sports Illustrated piece on how King understood the importance of sports.
He would be advising young student-athletes, of all colors, to fight for the rights to compensation from the billion-dollar NCAA, and the freedom to at least profit off their likeness, since everyone else does.
MLK would answer the phone and offer support to former NBA player Matt Barnes if he had any questions in preparation for last weekend’s rally in Sacramento in protest of the killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by police officers who fired eight bullets in his back and side in his own backyard, because officers used unnecessary lethal force over the belief that a crime had been committed.
Dr. King would also be furious at our justice system, and how a rapper like Meek Mill has become the face of the system that he protested against. Mill is currently still in jail stemming from an arrest for trying to stop a fight and for doing wheelies on his motorcycle. Those minor violations broke his probation from a case that happened 10 years ago, which is why he could be facing between two and four years in prison.
He’d be down in Florida standing with the kids from Parkland, as they’re making adults rethink their theories on gun control.
Because that’s who Dr. King was.
“As much as he did, he always blamed himself for not doing enough,” said Andrew Young, the former executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a member of King’s inner circle.
“He was a kind of workaholic where he was never content. He was driven by a kind of a need for perfection. And he was always feeling that he wasn’t doing his best.”
From being the face of the Civil Rights Movement to standing next to sanitation workers in Memphis that were on strike for higher pay and better working conditions during his final days, Martin Luther King Jr. was the man who was always on the side of people who just wanted to be treated fairly and equally.
He wasn’t trying to rock the boat; he just wanted to level it.
So, on this day, 50 years after we lost him, spend the day remembering who Dr. King actually was, instead of using him as a prop to fit your flawed agenda.