Resist the Disney-fication of Dr. King


Each year there are renewed attempts to shape the narrative around the legacy of the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While a “safe” version of Dr. King is applauded in many circles, the King of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign is in danger of being lost. This King denounced “the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation” and worked to unite the poor and dispossessed. In this photo, Dr. King speaks at Bailey Hall at Cornell University on April 14, 1961. Cornell Daily Sun.

Russell Rickford, associate professor of history at Cornell University, gave the 2016 address to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Community Luncheon at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School, Ithaca, New York last January 18. We print the speech in its entirety here. Used with permission.

It’s nice to see you. Thanks to the organizers of this gathering. It’s good to be here.

My seven-year-old daughter came home the other day singing a song about Martin Luther King. Her second-grade class was getting ready to participate in an annual MLK Day concert.

Now, in a way that’s amazing. It’s a sign of just how institutionalized MLK commemoration has become in our society.

Yet the lyrics my daughter was singing also reflect some of the very problematic ways that the American public remembers King.

The song my daughter learned explains that King was “a kind and gentle man.” It suggests that he “had a plan” for achieving peace and racial harmony. And it implies that Americans have more or less carried out this “plan,” or are at least trying to do so.

Now, I recognize that we craft certain messages for children. But the assumptions behind such representations of King also shape our culture and consciousness.

Such depictions of King cater to the American obsession with individualism. Here King is the singular, charismatic leader, the wise shepherd gently guiding his flock to freedom.

Largely ignored are the masses of women and men, boys and girls whose sacrifices and courage actually generated the popular black insurgency of the postwar era. The conventional narrative of King, moreover, suggests that the movement has been largely fulfilled. The anti-racist struggle in America becomes a relic that inspires civic rituals, proud tributes, somber reflection, and little else. Perhaps some volunteerism. A day on, as they say, rather than a day off.

The trouble with this approach is that, no matter how well intended, such messages inevitably contribute to the hollowing out of King, and to the distortion and erasure of both the man and the movement that produced him.

We’re left with a docile and accommodating King. Watered-down. Washed up. Safe. I like to call it the Disney-fication of King. Somebody said Santa Claus-ification.

This King has universal appeal. He could be a contestant on American Idol. This is the corporatized King. King as trademark, as brand. King as the Nike “swoosh” symbol. This King is making the world safe for transnational corporations.

It’s a stroke of genius, really. You reduce the entire black freedom struggle to one man. Then you drain that man of any kind of oppositional or political meaning. You turn him into a fairy tale; a metaphor for American exceptionalism.

Y’all know what American exceptionalism is?

It means that this nation was uniquely ordained by God or nature to embody the democratic strivings of all humanity; and that it can therefore do whatever it pleases, bomb whomever it pleases, take anybody’s land, pollute anybody’s rivers.

This is the King that we dutifully resurrect every year.

The idea that King held a picnic in Washington, and America showed up to wash away its sins in the waters of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, and that Obama today is the incarnation of that moment of grace, that transcendent day in 1963 when Martin said “I have a dream.” That, my friends, is a narrative designed to reassure white folks, and middle-class black and brown folks, too.

It is designed to reassure us that America really is a city on a hill. No matter how much war we wage; how many children we drone; how many poor families we deport or starve; how many “enemy combatants” we torture and illegally detain. We can always trot out King to reassure ourselves. And to cover the stench.

In the end, though, the contradictions surface.

It’s not just that King has been used to justify the gutting of affirmative action. Or that he has been transformed into a poster boy for colorblindness. “Colorblindness”—the idea that simply “not seeing race” is evidence that we have overcome the legacy of slavery and segregation.

No. The real rub is that the greatest enemies of King, and of the movement that created him, continue to kill and plunder while clothing themselves in his legacy.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel just held an MLK breakfast. Now here’s a guy, directly complicit in the cover-up involving Laquan McDonald, a young black man viciously gunned down in the street by the cops. The cops lied about what happened, and Rahm lied right along with them. And now he’s gonna stand on Martin’s face and say, “I have a Dream”?

And then there’s Obama. I know some of y’all like Obama. Obama just had his State of the Union address. And of course, he paraphrased King.

Obama has bombed seven countries in as many years. He’s dropped 35,000 bombs on Muslim nations.

Some of you know Mary Anne Grady Flores. Mary Anne, a resident of our area, is the “grandma” Drone resister who they’re sending back to jail for six months for nonviolently protesting Obama’s drone assassination program.

Mary Anne is a symbol of our outrage, our horror at these death machines, these demonic contraptions that even now, somewhere, are circling overhead, buzzing incessantly, tormenting civilians. Mary Anne Grady Flores speaks for many of us when she says those children that you have mutilated, that you have dismembered, those are our children. Those are our babies.

Well. Here we are singing King’s name and locking up Mary Anne. I have a dream. I have a drone.

Then there’s the carnage in our streets. Tamir Rice in Cleveland. The boy was 12 years old. Somebody said “he was murdered for using his imagination.”

In the last two weeks alone there have been more than 20 fatal police shootings. And it’s not just the caravan of deaths that haunts us, that exposes our hypocrisy. It’s other forms of violence, too.

White wealth today is thirteen times that of black wealth. Thirteen times! What kind of historical experience produces that level of inequality?

Recently, when the housing bubble burst, Black America lost 240,000 homes. Every day we are human fodder for a truly grotesque system of mass incarceration. Generations of black men and women have simply vanished.

Who’s got a freedom song for that?

No. If we’re gonna honor the black liberation movement, let’s honor the whole movement, past and present. The slave revolts. The armed struggles against the Klan and the lynch mob. The black communists. The black feminists. The workers’ struggles.

If we’re going to remember King, let’s not recycle a sound byte. Let’s not call for “civility” or “inclusion” or “diversity” or “tolerance.”

Let’s recall the man, who, near the end of his short life, was struggling, as we all must, with his mortality. Who was scared and riddled with doubt. But who was determined to tell no lies.

This King said: “I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”

This King said: “Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.”

This King said America was on the wrong side of the world revolution, and declared that, “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

This King was trying to catch up with the young radicals of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who had already taken a principled stance against U.S. imperialist war.

In some ways, this King was trying to catch up with Malcolm X, who had never stopped denouncing U.S. imperialism at home and abroad.

Through their few, fragmented and fraught communications, I can imagine the exchanges King and Malcolm might have had.

Brother Malcolm might have said to King — and here I’m taking poetic license — he might have said: Now brother, this ain’t no civil rights struggle; this is a struggle for human rights. This is a struggle against colonialism and imperialism. This is a fight against white world supremacy.

And King might have replied: Brother, in many ways you’re right. But I can’t say that out loud — I’ll lose my pulpit. I’ll lose my bargaining position.

Yet King understood his historical role. In the end, he knew what he had to do. He had to help organize a campaign of militant civil disobedience. He had to help launch a Poor People’s Campaign — an alliance between organized labor, unorganized workers, the unemployed, and the poor, to descend on Washington and demand an economic bill of rights, a humane society.

King had to do something else, too. He had to speak out against that damn war in Southeast Asia.

This King called the United States government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

This King named the three pillars of American empire: racism, militarism, and economic exploitation. He said: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.”

That was and is the unholy trinity, the vicious triad of American violence. As I tell my students, just remember the three W’s: War, Wealth inequality, and White supremacy.

Near the end of his life, when King began saying these things far more openly than he ever had before, when his critique expanded to envelop the whole apparatus of American capitalism, then, in the eyes of the political establishment, the media, the civil rights mainstream, and much of polite America, King became a pariah.

He became what segregationists and business elites had always called him: A Nuisance! And quite a dangerous one.

So today, if we’re going to honor the radical tradition of peace and justice that helped make King, we must again combat the three W’s: War. Wealth inequality. And White supremacy.

If we’re going to build a humane society, we must heed the words of the brilliant scholar-activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a queer black woman. As Keeanga recently said:

“The idea that we should have a society based on the equal distribution of wealth and resources is deeply embedded in the black experience. We talk about wanting black people to be free, so we have to think through what that means, which involves understanding what limits black freedom and what black freedom — beyond statutory, formal freedom — could look like.”

So in the short time I have left, I want to try to identify one of the main threats not just to black freedom, but to the freedom and wellbeing of all humanity. I want to talk about neoliberalism.

Now, “neoliberalism” is a funny word. It doesn’t mean “liberal” according to today’s definition of that term—someone who thinks the government should be actively involved in reforming society.

No. The “liberal” in neoliberalism comes from the 19th century meaning; that is, complete freedom from government interference. So “neo” liberalism, in part, means a return to an era in which there was next to no economic regulation or taxation.

But neoliberalism is much more than that. Neoliberalism is an especially aggressive, especially brutal form of capitalism. It has ruled our lives, and the lives of most people on the planet, since the late 20th century.

What else does neoliberalism mean? Neoliberalism means growing insecurity, unemployment or underemployment for most of the people in the Global North — the rich countries — and economic devastation for most of the people in the Global South — the poor countries.

Neoliberalism means austerity, except for the bankers. It means the crushing of labor unions, the decline of wages, the shredding of the safety net. It means sending jobs overseas. It means the billionaire class sucks up 95 percent of the economic gains since the Great Recession of ’08-09.

Neoliberalism means desperation and downward mobility. It means your life is increasingly precarious. You’re swimming in debt. You think you’re running in place, but you’re actually falling behind.

Neoliberalism means even white, middle-class people are dying sooner. As it turns out, your whiteness won’t protect you.

Neoliberalism means obscene inequality. It means the redistribution of the world’s wealth to the top 1 percent. Eighty people now hold the same amount of wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people. In the U.S., 400 individuals have more wealth than 150 million citizens. The Walton family, owners of Walmart, have more wealth than 42% of American families combined.

Neoliberalism means privately run prisons and privately run healthcare. It means billionaires privatizing our public schools and annexing our great cities.

Neoliberalism means decay. It means climate change, the destruction of our planet, the neglect and deterioration of our infrastructure and our public institutions. It means that children in Flint, Michigan are dying of lead poisoning as a result of that city’s foul, orange-hued tap water. Flint is largely black and largely poor. They’re drinking toxic waste. If you think it can’t happen to you, you haven’t been paying attention.

Neoliberalism means widespread ignorance and spiritual starvation. In its lust for profit and world domination, neoliberalism unleashes the most reactionary and vulgar elements of society. The fascists. The bigots. The warmongers.

This is not civilization. It’s barbarism. This is not what King had in mind when he said we would reach the Promised Land.

Who can live elegantly under the neoliberal regime? How can we teach our children decency in such indecent times? The only way to salvage our humanity, to leave our children something besides war and debt and misery, is to fight!

So as I close, I urge you to join the General Strike that is unfolding in many pockets of the world, from South Africa to Saudi Arabia. From Ferguson to Baltimore. From Yale to Mizzou to Ithaca College.

Today, many of our young people recognize the imperative to resist. They recognize the truth of what the democratic freedom fighter Ella Baker said back in 1964: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

These young people are calling for a new social contract. Some of them, particularly those organized under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” and “Fight for 15,” are calling for the reconstruction of democracy. They’re calling for living wages, dignified jobs, a worker’s bill of rights, and the protection and rebuilding of unions. They’re demanding fully funded healthcare, social services, and public schools. They’re seeking universal childcare, full access to reproductive health, an end to racist mass imprisonment, police terror, and the colonial occupation of the Palestinian people.

Some of our young people are now in open rebellion against neoliberalism and its accomplice: global white supremacy.

They’re determined to create a massive crisis for the system—a crisis of dissent. They have begun to engage in civil disobedience. Boycotts. Work stoppages. Marches. Rallies. Creative disruption. I think Martin would have been pleased.

As our brother Cornel West has said: “The litmus test for realizing King’s dream was neither a Black face in the White House nor a Black presence on Wall Street. Rather, the fulfillment of his dream was for all poor and working people to live lives of decency and dignity.”

So let’s be like King. Let’s catch up with our young people. Let’s demand a humane economy and an end to war. Let’s become nuisances.

King was a deeply flawed man. As flawed, perhaps, as you and me. If he was great, he was great because some small but determined segment of the people rose up and said “enough.” They launched a general strike. They didn’t hold no picnic. They didn’t have no love-fest. They analyzed their objective conditions. And they went to battle.

So I leave you with the words of the beautiful Fred Hampton, chairman of the Chicago Black Panthers, one of the spiritual descendants of King, and Malcolm, and Ella, who was murdered in his sleep by the mad-dog cops and federal agents in 1969.

Comrade Fred said: “People say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.”

Thank You. Venceremos! Free Palestine!

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