The Whitewashing of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Posted: January 17, 2022 in Uncategorized

Great persons of vision and leadership often deserve commemoration; we place them on national calendars with their own days, design educational events around them, record their words and restate them at important moments. Some get their faces on currency. Or a bridge named after them. So it is for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the foremost leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States, whose national day we celebrate today.

King is often remembered for the I Have a Dream speech which was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. His words recalled Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. The dream he described was for an America which transcended the sin of racism and marched toward a brighter day. It is that speech we most often hear recited on this day we remember him and the ideals for which he stood.

It is also a day in which his message is turned upside down by those who oppose everything he stood for. This day is notorious for cherry picking; selectively choosing the words that espouse unity while avoiding the call to justice and equality. Though his speech included invectives against racism, segregation, discrimination, voter repression, and police brutality, and insisted that justice should be made a reality for all God’s children, those ideas are often avoided. What are quoted instead are these: “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

White folks, by and large, like to tame King. They like the non-violent, Gandhi-inspired change agent, which he was. But they do not like the prophet of Biblical proportions. One, but not the other.

This day, of all days, is given to the whitewashing of Martin Luther King, Jr.

We will not hear his words from the Birmingham jail, asking where the white preachers are, reminding us that the silence of our friends is the most damning sort of abandonment. We will not hear that he opposed the Vietnam war, or pressured LBJ on every piece civil rights legislation, including voting rights. We will not hear that the ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of convenience and comfort, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy. Will will not hear that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We will not hear these things.

What we will hear is that we should be nice, that, gosh darn it, we should just get along, that we’ve made lots of progress so that should make us pretty happy. It’s the anti-King message, the taming and whitewashing of King.

All around the country today those who oppose King and his message will be quoting him in order to appear as though they are great fans. They do the same with John Lewis of blessed memory. We were buddies, look, here is a photo of us smiling together on the House floor.

But then they continue to undermine voting rights for all citizens, strategically making it harder for people of color to vote. They do this institutionally, to create an illusion of voting integrity. Or, what’s worse, the silence of so-called friends takes the day, as leaders state that, yes, of course, they support voting rights, but will not take the steps necessary to secure them.

In this present day of pushback against everything that Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for, this moment in which racism and white victimhood has become fashionable and sells, a whitewashed King cannot help. In fact, that milk toast version of King hurts more than it helps. Because when the prophets are tamed in order to make them more palatable, when they are sculpted to protect white culture from feeling too uncomfortable, the battle is lost. The lion has been tamed. And nothing is left but to parade him out when the circus comes to town, make him roar at the crack of the whip, and entertain an audience that never feels the slightest bit conflicted.

Martin Luther King, Jr., never made it to his 40th birthday. That is because white supremacism killed him for being a prophet. Today, the prophets will also be punished, if not killed, for doing the same. It is ever the peril of speaking the truth to power. In this time, the ghosts of the roaring beasts King addressed are once again roaming the land. And, like the portrait of the mild-mannered Jesus, the mild-mannered King will not help us. The whitewashed and tamed version can only hurt. It is up to us to resurrect the prophet that has been conveniently domesticated. Before it is too late.

  1. Janice Henson says:

    In this time, the ghosts of the roaring beasts King addressed are once again roaming the land.


    Tim, That was outstanding! Thank you for bringing the bigotry to light.
    I can’t help but wish that you would run for an office to bring light to important issues.

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