The (Hijacked, Whitewashed, and Misrepresented) Identity of Martin Luther King Jr.

After establishing MLK Day, Reagan actually sent an apology to Republican Governor Meldrim Thomas, Jr, who had opposed recognizing MLK’s historical significance. In the letter, Reagan claimed he was celebrating “an image of King, not reality” — perhaps the most explicit admission by White America that it had actively manipulated MLK’s legacy to make him less of a radical and more likeable to those in power.

 

There is a very specific set of ideas, values, and events we are conditioned from a young age to associate with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He has become virtually synonymous with racial harmony, nonviolence, and positive leadership. Immortalized has become the warm, jubilant face and gently raised hand of a fatherly American hero. No recap of the defining events of the 20th century is complete without his famed speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — the great “I Have a Dream” address that so eloquently outlined his vision of a world that has finally shunned racism. We are taught to contrast his peace-loving approach with the aggressive militancy of Malcolm X. We are made to believe that the Great Reverend saw a color-blind world and that we should too. Almost like a character from ancient legend, MLK has become a larger-than-life immortal whose legacy represents everything we as a society are taught to aspire to.

But like most legendary characters, much of what we are taught is incomplete, misrepresented, and dishonest. The image of Martin Luther King Jr. that we can piece together from history textbooks and popular documentaries is a sanitized, whitewashed, and deliberately manipulated caricature engineered to soften the edges of his true identity, legacy, and vision. In particular, MLK’s life and ideas have been presented in a way that is less problematic for White America — gone are the mentions of the American government’s portrayal of him as a terrorist and criminal, his belief that capitalism was a cruel structure that enabled racism and further entrenched social inequality, his staunch opposition to the military-industrial complex and the continuous string of American war crimes amid the Cold War, and his insistence that radical steps needed to be taken to compensate for centuries of racial injustice.

It is no surprise that in the decades since his death, the portrayal of MLK to the American public has conveniently left out parts of his legacy that made White America uncomfortable. What most of us are taught about MLK is, in effect, a “whitewashed version of King, an image rehabilitated for white consumption” (Newkirk, para 4). By White America, of course, I mean the leaders, lawmakers, and cultural figures who benefit from the power structures engineered to ensure that the white and the wealthy retain their privilege for generations. I mean everyone from U.S. presidents who have led the destruction of Black and urban communities, to primetime television news anchors who designate racial justice activists as thugs and reckless rioters, complain about rappers criticizing the police, and gleefully lend exposure to those who aid and abet white supremacy (but often enjoy a free pass because they don a suit, a tie, and a title beginning with Congressman).

Make no mistake — MLK was a radical, and radicals have enemies. He was not widely beloved as White American history makes him out to be; in a 1967 Harris poll, one year before he was assassinated, 75% of Americans reported disliking him (Cobb, para 2). He was a revolutionary who became all the more convinced throughout his career that urgent action was needed to combat racism, even if it frightened and angered those in power. His rise was deeply unsettling to White America, because his ideas challenged the fundamental social structures their power rested upon. In fact, if MLK emerged in the year 2021, he would still create discomfort and provoke outrage among conservatives, the GOP, and anyone else in the United States who denies modern systemic racism, reject the necessity for racial reparations and prioritizes the principles of free-market capitalism over bettering the quality of American life. Many of the same conservative leaders who sing his praise today—or, more correctly, praise the whitewashed version of him — would have labeled him a left-wing radical, socialist, and thug if he were a modern activist.

Perhaps the worst exploitation of MLK’s ideas by White America is the widespread, and often misrepresented, concept of “color-blindness.” White America likes to convince us that Reverend King did not want race or our skin colour to be a factor in any political, social, or economic decision-making. Using this principle, those in a position of power—the white and wealthy — have opposed racial reparations, federal aid specifically set aside for minority communities, affirmative action, and other measures designed to support people of color. Even today, conservative-leaning politicians will cite the “color-blind” vision of MLK to justify their opposition to such policies: if Reverend King wanted America to be color-blind, surely we cannot treat Black people any different than Whites.

This is outright false. Reverend King did not envision a “color-blind” future — he acknowledged, from personal experience, that people of color experienced daily American life in a fundamentally different way than those in a position of privilege. This, of course, is due to literal centuries of subjugation, violence, and insurmountable barriers in accessing the same basic resources that Whites were freely privy to. Consider that generations of poverty, lack of opportunity and infrastructure, and the dismal quality of education, healthcare, and social security — not to mention a minimal (if not completely non-existent) role in political decision-making — have profoundly handicapped Black communities and their ability to secure a sustainable future for themselves.

Reverend King not only realized this reality but lived it himself. From his championing of federal support for Black communities, it becomes clear that he knew that massive strides needed to be taken to particularly assist people of color. Simply ignoring the societal gap between Whites and Blacks — as “color-blindness” attempts to do — is not only detrimental to securing racial justice but makes it completely impossible. Americans of different races are not starting their lives with the same resources, family background, and privilege. To claim that they are, and pass legislation that does not recognize the consequences of past injustices, is merely ignorant at best and morally abhorrent at worst. And of course, White America has done its best to exploit Reverend King’s ideas to advance its own “color-blind” agenda of dismissing the specific needs of historically subjugated communities.

Another aspect of MLK’s legacy manipulated by the privileged for their own gain is the nature of his activism. White America would have you believe MLK was a nonviolent, nonconfrontational, unproblematic, loving, doting, peaceful man. They point to him and insist that modern-day activists, such as BLM, would succeed only if they were “not so violent.” Yet the American government’s relationship with MLK can only be characterized as hateful, untrusting, predatory, and exploitative—not to mention literally murderous.

Take, for example, his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963, which has gone on to become a milestone in civil rights history. Today we see that speech as representative of MLK’s eloquence, inspiring leadership, and vision for a future America that has progressed past racial discrimination. Yet consider for a moment that two days after that speech, which history holds so dear today, the head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence wrote a widely shared memo in which he declared about MLK: “We must mark him now as the most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation.”

The FBI, and much of the American government, did not see MLK as a hero but as an active threat to be suppressed, investigated, and maligned — despite Reverend King’s (manufactured) modern image as a nonconfrontational icon of peace. Reverend King’s surveillance was part of COINTELPRO, an FBI counterintelligence program tasked with combating communism but known today to target innumerable Black leaders and organizations. The program is responsible for the assassination of several Black activists, such as Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969. Other COINTELPRO tactics included conducting illegal break-ins, giving false testimony in court, fabricating police evidence, and planting false stories in the media to discredit, attack, and imprison Black leaders as well as members of feminist, animal rights, and other left-wing organizations. This illegal — and clearly, profoundly, disturbingly unethical  — program was secret until documents revealed in 1971 confirmed its existence. (The FBI continues to practice the surveillance of Black activists today, such as members of the BLM movement. In fact, until 2019, the agency had a designation known as “Black Identity Extremists” used to track such activists, as revealed by the magazine Foreign Policy.)

Reverend King was a prominent target of COINTELPRO. Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had an almost personal vendetta against MLK, often issuing warnings about the dangers of a “Black Messiah” and claimed that the civil rights movement (or, as he called it, “the Negro situation”) was being covertly orchestrated by communists to create social confusion in the United States. In 1964, the FBI sent an anonymous “suicide letter” to MLK, urging him to decline the Nobel Peace Prize, “step out of leadership”, and kill himself (Giorgis, para 15). For all of the honors bestowed upon him by the American government today, MLK for much of his life was harassed, hounded, and demonized by the nation’s top investigative body—using nefarious tactics still employed against Black activists who carry on Reverend King’s legacy today.

The observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday on January 18th was signed into law by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1983. There is perhaps no better example of White America exploiting and misrepresenting Reverend King’s legacy for their own political gain than the Reagan administration. As scholars of racial justice Justin Gomer and Christopher Petrella write in the Boston Review, “Reagan built his political career on a foundation of anti-black civil rights. He opposed the Civil Rights Act in 1964…A year later he came out against the Voting Rights Act, which he deemed ‘humiliating to the South’… ‘If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house,’ Reagan insisted, ‘it is his right to do so.’ A Reagan campaign ad that same year referred to black neighborhoods as jungles…” (para 2). Scholars today are confident that Reagan only signed MLK Day into law as a political move to boost public opinion of himself.

After establishing MLK Day, Reagan actually sent an apology to Republican Governor Meldrim Thomas, Jr, who had opposed recognizing MLK’s historical significance. In the letter, Reagan claimed he was celebrating “an image of King, not reality” — perhaps the most explicit admission by White America that it had actively manipulated MLK’s legacy to make him less of a radical and more likeable to those in power.

Another aspect of Reverend King’s legacy conveniently swept aside by White America is his staunch opposition to capitalism, a foundational pillar of the United States. MLK believed that a capitalistic system not only enabled but actively amplified racism in the United States, and achieving genuine equality entailed developing a new socio-economic order entirely. The latter stage of his career saw him “resolved to pursue a more expansive, aggressive, and (to white Americans, especially) unsettling socio-economic and political agenda” (Cobb, para 5), particularly one that replaced the pillars of free-market capitalism with a more egalitarian approach that prioritized the needs of America’s people. In a 1961 speech to the Negro American Labor Council, Reverend King declared that “…call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” His rhetoric took on a more forceful tone later in life, as evidenced in this 1967 report to the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference: “We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… … the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation, and [we] must put [our] own house in order” (“MLK on Capitalism”, para 11). Multiple times in King’s life, he spoke of how the battle against racism is inextricably a fight to reform the American economic system that had doomed millions to generational poverty.

MLK advocated for massive, radical steps by the federal government to uplift the Black community — measures that would be politically controversial even by today’s standards, to say the least. He endorsed a $50 billion aid program for African Americans, which he asserted would be validated by “a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting, and other social evils.” His mission was to “enable Blacks to overcome the historic disadvantages imposed on them by whites of earlier generations” (Cobb, para 9). Reverend King also drew up an Economic Bill of Rights, promoting sustainable social equality through concrete (and controversial) steps, such as guaranteed income, housing, and capital for all American families regardless of background.

Few people in history have achieved the same legendary, immortal status of Martin Luther King Jr, and for a good reason. He has worked for and rightfully deserves his reputation as one of the defining civil rights heroes of all time. Yet as we appreciate his legacy, we must remain wary of the co-opting, whitewashing, and exploitation of his ideas by those with power, privilege, and the motivation to manipulate Reverend King’s identity for their own political gain.

Adeeb Chowdhury is an aspiring lawyer and the leader of multiple social justice foundations in his city of Chittagong. He is currently studying Political Science at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh.

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