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The Whitewashing of MLK: American Hero who Sacrificed his Life for Colour-Blind Justice

Updated: Jun 12

By Clara Frey 

Staff Writer

Via National Geographic

The legacy of Dr. King celebrated today has been rewritten; sanitized and commercialized for an America seeking to erase its racist past and polish its problematic present. 

This February, as Black History Month is observed, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. will be celebrated across the globe. Fifty-six years after his death, Dr. King is honored like an American hero. He is the first African American and only the fourth non-president with a memorial at the National Mall in Washington D.C. He is the only Black man with a federally-observed birthday and there are at least 955 streets and over 110 high schools across the nation named after him. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee, where he was assassinated, has been transformed into a museum that bears witness to his life and tireless dedication to the Civil Rights Movement. 

There is no question that Dr. King is revered by Americans. But is his legacy being remembered accurately? After all, when MLK was alive, white America reviled him. 

In 1956, after Dr. King helped lead the Montgomery bus boycotts in protest of  racial segregation on public transit, his home was bombed while his wife and seven-week-old daughter were inside. In May of 1963, a Gallup survey revealed that sixty-three percent of Americans viewed Dr. King unfavorably; forty-four percent even viewed him highly unfavorably. On April 4, 1968, he was assassinated by white Supremacist James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony of his second-floor hotel room; an act reflective of the extreme hatred and fear of Black revolutionaries. 

The Church Committee, a 1975 senate investigation into collusion and abuses within the U.S. intelligence services revealed that in the five years prior to his death, MLK had been placed under heavy FBI scrutiny and was a primary target of their COINTELPRO projects. 

COINTELPRO focused their actions primarily on Black Civil rights activists such as the radical Black Panther Party, Malcolm X and pacifist MLK. The FBI made use of espionage, wiretapping, psychological warfare and undermining of public opinion to ‘neutralize’ Black leaders. It was not beneath this organization, for example, to expose the pregnancy of American actress Jean Seberg in the hopes of "possibly caus[ing]  her embarrassment or tarnish[ing] her image with the general public," because she was a known financial supporter of the Black Panthers. 

So how, in little over half a decade did MLK go from one of the FBI’s most heavily surveilled men, to a beloved national figure? 

The mainstream media likes to remember Dr. King’s pacifism and to quote parts of his speeches that, removed from their proper context, perpetuate colorblind ideologies. Color blindness is a veiled form of racism, that by claiming to “not see race” dismisses the legitimate injustices perpetrated against BIPOC. 

It is safe to assume that most Americans are familiar with MLK’s famous line: "I have a dream that my [...] children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. " 

It is not surprising that the most quoted passage from MLK’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the August 28 1963March on Washington is one that, when it stands alone, supports color blind narratives. 

Yes, Dr. King was hopeful that his country might meet the promises it made about racial equality in its constitution, but he also held it accountable for police brutality, imperialism, and systemic poverty in lesser-quoted parts of his ‘I Have a Dream’ address.

Every February in America, color-blind politicians on both ends of the political spectrum tweet tear-jerking eulogies to MLK, all the while passing legislation that serves to erode voting rights and that funds America’s imperialist exploits such as the wars in Ukraine and Palestine. In 2023, due to these conflicts, US weapons sales rose to a record 238 billion (BBC). Often, in these tweets, politicians will even discount the seemingly, to most, indisputable fact that Dr. King was assassinated.

In 2019, President Donald Trump’s press secretary Sarah Huckabbee Sanders took to Twitter to express: “Today we honor a great American who gave his life to right the wrong of racial inequality. Our country is better thanks to his inspiration and sacrifice #MLKDay.” MLK’s assassination was a consequence of the same white supremacist ideologies that motivated the January 6 Capitol riots. Sander’s failure to accurately depict the circumstances of Dr. King’s death is not coincidental. The fact that even the Trump administration, that frequently backed neo-nazis and white supremacists, is able to align itself with Dr. King reveals just how white washed his image has become; it is reduced to a meaningless hashtag. 

White America does not like to feel uncomfortable. By choosing to invalidate race, white people can conveniently excuse themselves from examining the ways in which they might be benefitting from the oppression of others. America refuses to accurately depict the complexity of King’s avowedly radical message by cherry-picking representations of him that don’t expose the ugly, uncomfortable truth of its deep systemic racism.

Michael Harriot, author of Black AF History: The Un-Whitewashed History of America, states of Dr. King in a Guardian op-ed: 

"The average American might get the heebie-jeebies if they knew they were celebrating a radical who challenged systemic racism, supported reparations and advocated for a universal basic income.” 

This is why many of MLK’s more radical speeches and writings do not get the limelight they deserve. 

 On April 4 1967, exactly a year before his assassination, MLK delivered perhaps his most controversial address, Beyond Vietnam — A time to Break the Silence, to three thousand people at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. In this speech, Dr. King delivers a pointed critique of the Vietnam war and American militarism, calling the U.S. “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” In 1967, 500,000 Americans had been drafted to Vietnam, and the U.S. would drop more explosives on the country  than it did on all of Europe during WW2. 

America doesn’t tweet about Beyond Vietnam because it tells us what Dr. King would have thought about its involvement in Gaza. Dr. King called for a "radical departure” from the country’s bombing and demanded an immediate cease-fire to allow for the beginnings of peace negotiations. It is no question that Dr. King would ask the same of the U.S.-backed Israel. 

Sheryll Cashin, law professor at Georgetown University and author of several books on racial justice tells POLITICO: “[Dr. King] would have decried Hamas’ unspeakable acts of violence, rape, torture and hostage taking place on Oct. 7. He would also denounce the U.S. for funding the mass destruction in Gaza that now subjects the entire population to the risk of death by disease, dehydration or starvation.” 

It’s not a fluke that the mainstream media underrepresents Dr. King’s anti-war sentiments. Last November, in 2023, the House of Representatives passed a republican bill providing $14.5 billion in military aid for Israel’s attack on Palestine. 

In a speech given during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches Dr. King points to the hypocrisy of his nation:  “Millions of dollars can be spent every day to hold troops in South Vietnam and our country cannot protect the rights of Negroes in Selma.”  The U.S. spent colossal sums of money to defend the civil liberties of the South Vietnamese from the supposed communist threat, when back at home, most Black Americans in Alabama were still denied the basic right to vote and were targeted by reconstruction-era legislation that left them disproportionately poor. 

But Dr. King's radical reclamations extended to more than just America’s participation in Vietnam. He also saw illegal protest as a legitimate means for social change. 

Martin Luther King and wife Coretta Scott leading an SCLC protest on a highway from Selma to Montgomery Alabama. (Via HISTORY)

On April 12th, 1963, MLK and other Black leaders belonging to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led the Birmingham Campaign, a protest promoting racial equality and desegregation in the state. Dr. King observed that in 1963,  Alabama was, " the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” That same day, Dr. King and fellow SCLC leaders were already arrested and jailed for having led peaceful civil disobedience protests that blocked traffic and inconvenienced commuters. 

In Prison, Dr. King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and defended disruptive forms of activism. His letter responds to eight white clergymen who disapproved of local civil rights demonstrations led by Dr. King in their previously issued open letter, ‘A Call for Unity’. 

Though the white ministers acknowledged the existence of racial inequities, they believed that such issues ought to be fought through purely legal means, in courts of law rather than through acts of civil disobedience. 

Dr. King believed that white moderates posed almost a greater threat to the civil rights movement than white supremacists did: “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." To Dr. King, criticizing social disobedience, though-illegal, for occasionally causing tensions such as traffic jams or sit-ins only served to discredit the SCLC and to defer promises of changing racist legislation.

This February, let us remember the real Dr. King, the one that was unafraid to call America out on its imperialist and capitalist pursuits in wars thousands of miles away, who eloquently defended the right to disobedient protest in response to white moderates and who was unafraid to block highways to assure a better future for POC. Let us not allow self-serving color-blind politicians to distort and pervert the powerful words that cost Dr. King his life. "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."



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