Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “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.” As the University of Oregon celebrates MLK Day 2022, it’s imperative that we dig deeper, both in our understanding of anti-racism and action, rather than finding comfort in the caricature of Dr. King that dominates American pop culture.
For far too many, Dr. King is frozen in a selection of excerpts from his “I Have a Dream” speech. He is remembered on stage in front of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial, reduced to his most optimistic sound bites. How does that square with the reality that Dr. King had a 75 percent disapproval rating the year he died? What about the FBI’s relentless surveillance and harassment campaign against Dr. King, which included a letter suggesting he commit suicide, repeated attempts to link him to communism and the Red Scare and J. Edgar Hoover, for which the FBI Headquarters is named, calling King “the most notorious liar in the country”?
Let’s be clear: When we only remember Dr. King, devoid of this intense pushback and without acknowledging that these same forces are very much active today, that is revisionist history. As opposed to the storied speech from the Lincoln Memorial, perhaps a more appropriate Dr. King quote for this moment comes from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
He wrote, “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 Counciler 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.’”
For years, we have watched those who oppose justice weaponize a defanged version of Dr. King to attack anti-racist protesters. Just as the Red Scare used fear of socialism to smear the civil rights movement in the mid-1900s, we are watching the same fear mongering rhetoric weaponize Marxism and patriotism to not just demonize Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist protesters, but also the very study or even simple acknowledgement of race in schools.
Throughout Oregon, groups rabidly attacking school board meetings to censor the prospect of critical race theory and violent organizations hiding behind “flag waves” to terrorize people on the streets are akin to the white mobs Dr. King confronted in Chicago who he described as more “hateful” than any he had seen “even in Mississippi or Alabama.”
Unfortunately, whether out of fear, complicity or simple indifference, many are opting to appease these forces. Rather than pressing forward with anti-racist measures and efforts to directly support communities of color, institutions throughout the state are choosing to take whatever action will least upset white nationalists and their sympathizers.
This is not the time to stand down in the name of protecting comfort or status. With persistent, organized attacks against everything from critical race theory to voting rights, there is no shortage of places to take action in the name of anti-racism.
Even with the limitations that arise from COVID-19 and the Omicron variant, MLK Day 2022 at the UO is a great opportunity to celebrate, learn and build community with the goal of empowering action. This year’s theme is “Amplifying Voices for Racial Solidarity and Equity.” If you missed it live, you can watch this year’s annual celebration ceremony online, which includes the 2022 MLK Awards recipients.
Again, instead of using this as a passive exercise in honoring Dr. King’s quotes, use it as an opportunity to recognize, connect, demand free and fair access to voting rights for all, and collaborate with, or simply support those carrying on his legacy in their work and actions. Right now, as much as ever, we are called upon to put substance behind our rhetoric.