White People, Understand MLK Before You Quote Him

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., all things considered, was not much of a friend of whites. I don’t say that to disparage him; quite the contrary. We just did not earn his friendship. He is one of the greatest heroes of the modern era. That makes us, white people, the villain in his harrowing story. We stood, on the whole, in opposition to MLK and everything he stood for. Even those individuals who didn’t were born into the system that made them unequal and reaped advantages.”Good” white people are harder to come by than you’d think. I think we all learned that in November.

As white people, we must first admit all these things, if we are to ever get close to becoming “good.”

I don’t have time to explain privilege (but this is a great start), or all the ways in which being considered white are advantageous.To be an ally to people of color, you have to admit there is a system, that you benefit from it, and that no matter what your struggles are, one of them is not the color of your skin or your perceived ethnicity. If you’re not amenable to that idea, or receptive to the very concept of privilege, you’re just not going to be an ally. You can’t. It’s mutually exclusive. I hope you’ll come around eventually.

With that introductory disclaimer, we white people are now primed to accept that Martin Luther King Jr. was not put on this earth for us, or for us to use as a mandate to police the behavior of people of color. He stood in direct opposition to us, because we would never be the people he dreamed we could be.

People like to forget:

  • King was a disruptor. He purposefully caused chaos to get his messages across.
  • King was absolutely hated by white people; the things people say about Black Lives Matter today, are the things white people said about him before. He was hated so much that a white person killed him.
  • King fought for more than black sovereignty, and his ideals are unpopular with most conservatives today (whether they realize King had them or not).

The story we are taught in school is roughly this:

Jesus-loving MLK came on the scene and did everything that the violent shit-stirrer Malcolm X didn’t. By making friends with white people, he achieved equality for his people. One bad person, totally unrelated to any of the public opinion about MLK, assassinated him. Now white people are good.

It’s true that MLK preached on non-violence. The problem comes when his name is invoked, or he is quoted without context, in order to tell people of color how to act in the face of challenge and oppression, and when his other ideals are erased.

Here is a good list of myths that are pervasive and used to this end. People act like MLK was not in favor of social upheaval, as if he’d be disappointed in protesting methods today, when they are essentially modeled with his leadership in mind. Change does not come until those in power are inconvenienced and worried, at least. King did not believe in a “colorblind” society, and he did not limit his focus to the racists in the segregated south.

It’s easy to conveniently forget that MLK and the others who marched with him were considered radical extremists, that Americans largely hated MLK in the 60s, that after his “I have a dream” speech, the FBI employed one of the most far-reaching surveillance programs in history calling him “The most dangerous negro“. King wasn’t just hated for leading the effort to get black people the right to vote; he was also hated for his stances on fair housing. He was accused of being a communist, largely because of his anti-war activism. In his final days, he was a champion against poverty and for workers’ rights.

How in the world is it acceptable to only view his legacy as one of a complacent, non-violent black person? This has been called the Santa Clausification of King.

It’s easy to forget that MLK disliked and feared us, the white moderate (who either elected Donald Trump or didn’t keep enough of their peers from doing so). And, based on a demographic breakdown of this last election, he was absolutely correct. Many people maintain that Hillary Clinton was not the candidate for black people, but nevertheless, the problem is that white people voted for the person who made promises to make America more racist, not the one who at least claimed she’d do the opposite.


White people – those of us who want to be allies, those of us who want to truly be “good” – we need to get our house in order. We need to eliminate the white moderate from our ranks, who weighed tax breaks equally with human rights in this last election. We need to understand that to some extent, we may have also weighed those options ourselves, if even for a split second. It’s not that we need to bring black Americans into our movement; the problem is that we have viewed it as our movement in the first place.

Feminists, we cannot once again leave women of color behind when we push for our own rights; we cannot shut them out of the conversation or assume that their path to feminism exists in the same context as ours. We must welcome the women in, while understanding that, in this case, we are also members of the oppressing class. We must understand White Feminism and avoid it. It’s not that they are invited to be a part of the feminist movement, but that we were not supposed to view feminism as our own in the first place.

I believe I am not only speaking for myself, when I say this: I was personally shocked that outward and unabashed racism did not scare more white people away from Donald Trump. If you read my words above with your defenses up and your blood boiling, but you do not consider yourself a racist, please take a moment to think about that: regardless of what anyone says or does, or how they self-identify, white people, as a majority, voted for a racist. Enough white people either 1) liked this about him or 2) didn’t care about this. Either way, we need to hold our fellow white people accountable because the voices of people of color are clearly not enough right now.

Action Items

  • When reading about race, make a point to find out if the author is one of color and if not, take everything with a grain of salt (including me, here, now).
  • Do some reading on how to be an ally. I’ve collected a few resources here.
  • As much as you can, consume media and read works by authors of color. Not written by white people like me about racial issues, but literally written by the people who are experts on the subject. At the bottom of this post (same as the one above), there is a reading list to get started.
  • Make a personal commitment to start engaging other white people in conversation, and try to reel in their racism. Many will shut down and will shut you down. Here is an article I think serves as a good guide for this.
  • Educate people far and wide about the truths of MLK, and don’t let anyone in your life get away with using him as a bludgeon against black people.
  • Entertain the notion that your defensiveness in these conversations is up because of White Fragility; something we all suffer from, but can combat once we learn to recognize it.
  • Read MLK’s lesser known speeches. Much of what he says applies to our plight today.
  • [Added later for additional reading] “My Dream Has Turned Into a Nightmare” and “What To Say When ‘Wypipo’ Bring Up MLK”

Author: Melissa

Melissa is an artist and half-architect living in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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