What would Martin Luther King Jr. say now?

Taking a closer look at the civil rights activist’s words and danger of misusing them

Graphic by: Charlie Zitta | Production Assistant

Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, social media is filled with famous quotes in remembrance of the civil rights activist. Last year, however, King’s quotes began popping up on social media throughout the summer after the Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country, largely in response to the police killing of George Floyd.

Many of the people posting quotes were white and used some of King’s more famous quotes to condemn the violence that broke out among some of the protests. According to a report by the US Crisis Project, 93% of the protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement were peaceful. But the few protests that turned violent were highlighted and used as examples to condemn the movement itself.

Kenneth Hawkins, a graduate student in the community college leadership program, advocates for nonviolence in King’s footsteps— as an undergraduate, he attended Morehouse College, King’s alma mater because he wants “to live [his] life like Dr. King.” However, in regard to the few protests that turned violent, Hawkins said he could understand the reason why.

“You can always take one or two, or even three or four incidents and blow it up, conflated in a way that it gives a picture of the movement,” Hawkins said. “That’s not really the picture of the movement. And I think that to conflate it is racist in the first place…that those things unfortunately, while I do not agree with it, will occur when you have day in and day out of protests that involve the systemic prohibition of African Americans in our society. That’s going to happen, people are going to get upset. You can’t be okay and you can’t just raise your voice and you can’t just object when you see a guy like [Jacob] Blake get shot in the back seven times, that gets to you.

“Again, I’m not saying ever that we should be violent, and I don’t think that that’s the way that we should go. But I certainly understand how something like that might occur occasionally, especially when people are in a society where they feel as if they’ve been shut out.”

King’s quotes became an avenue for many to dismiss the purpose of the protests, although most quotes were cherry picked from King’s most popular speeches or writing. Quotes like “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” and “We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools” were used to call for unity rather than protests and discredit the Black Lives Matter movement. But this quote from King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” was conveniently left out: “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

Business administration professor Kasey Thompson criticized the picking and choosing of King’s quotes to serve a personal agenda and oppose a movement led by Black people.

“I do find it incredibly irresponsible to, you know, look at the outcry of a situation, look at the outcry of the people who are looking for justice, who are demanding justice, and then to manipulate a saying or manipulate a call by saying ‘but you can’t demand justice in this way’ and I do find that incredibly dangerous,” Thompson said.

When looking deeper into King’s writings, it doesn’t take long before finding his disgust for people exactly like this. In King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, he expressed his disappointment with the “white moderate.”

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice,” King wrote, “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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’

“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.”

Hawkins called the white middle class “the gatekeepers to wealth” and summarized King’s description of the white moderate as white people today who know better yet do nothing.

“They enjoy their lifestyle and don’t want the intrusion of difference to impact their way of life,” Hawkins said. “When you talk about integration, which is what he’s discussing here, much of the issue was dealing with the white middle class, which said when you come in our neighborhoods, you’re going to reduce the value of my house. When you come to my schools, we’re not going to have good teachers anymore. So we’re concerned at the end of the day, while it’s the quietness of the of racism here.

“We like you, we can even say that we love you, but we don’t want you in our spaces, because when that happens, we lose something, we lose economic value.”

Thompson echoed the sentiment that the systemic racism in the United States was seemingly quiet before the events of 2020. But it was quiet to some because it was relative, Thompson said; there’s an effort to make it seem like we have made more progress than we really have.

When reflecting on the past year of protests involving hundreds of thousands of people, Thompson called it a year of reckoning. Comparing the photos and writing from 60 years ago to today she said, in reality, we haven’t come as far as we have believed.

“It’s just different interpretation of what Dr. Martin Luther King said in the Birmingham letters, is that just because things are not in your face, does not mean that they are not a reality for multitudes of other people,” Thompson said. “For so long, because we didn’t have to see it, there were these isolated incidences, right? And when you have isolated incidences, you can kind of mitigate the seriousness of the incident because you can rationalize away why that isolated incidents occurred.

“That’s another reason why this year is so important and today is so important, is because it disrupted like this facade that we built around ourselves. We built this facade of things may not be exactly where we want them to be, but they’re okay. They’re better. And that’s the facade, because we still haven’t reached this level of equality.”

The year 2020 “wasn’t the impetus of systemic racism” and “didn’t birth any of these inequities” in Thompson’s eyes, it merely put them on display. For both Thompson and Hawkins, MLK Day holds more significance this year, especially in light of the recent attack on the national’s capitol or political leaders who deny the existence of systematic racism.

“For someone who’s not directly impacted by systemic racism to say that it doesn’t exist, I find that horrifically irresponsible,” Thompson said. “I find that in and of itself as just a privileged arrogance, that, you know, to even imply that it doesn’t exist when you’re not affected by its existence. Many of the leaders in this country, and the fact that they would so pompously state that systemic racism doesn’t exist? Or ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this is happening’ What do you mean, you can’t believe This has been in existence for your entire existence.”

The efforts to disenfranchise Black voters in Detroit and Georgia during the presidential election was one of the clearest examples of racism in the political sphere. In Florida, where Hawkins is from, a petition to allow former felons to vote made it on the ballot and was passed. However, Governor Ron DeSantis added a provision that any outstanding fines must be paid by the former felons before they vote, essentially creating a poll tax.

“That’s a poll tax that comes from after slavery…they would tax former slaves and say, if you want to vote, you got to pay this, and then you can vote or have an intelligence test,” Hawkins said. “These people that are getting out of jail, they serve their time, and many of them went to jail because of conditions of poverty. How are they going to pay these fines now, when they got out of prison? It’s impossible, but the reality is, that most of these people getting out of prison are African Americans. You know how they’re going to vote, they want to vote democratically, which would make the difference between the next governor and the legislature. That means that Florida will turn blue, and that’s a big deal.”

The events of 2020 have made it impossible to ignore the injustices interwoven within society, the system that is inherently discriminatory towards Black people and other minorities. Many, including President-Elect Joe Biden, have called for unity. Hawkins believes there can be unity, but not before reconciliation, which requires an acknowledgement and accountability.

“The issue is that if I were arrested for something, and I apologize for my actions, and I said, ‘Your Honor, now that I’ve apologized, and now that I truly feel badly about what happened, and I’ve given some contrition on the fact that I feel badly about what happened, you should let me go,’” Hawkins said. “‘Because in the spirit of peace and happiness and togetherness, because I love you, Your Honor, and I love the people and whatever I did, I was wrong for. But now, I see my wrong and let’s move on.’ No, they put my ass in jail, right?

“In order for us to move on beyond this assault on our personhood, we need an answer for what you did. And then when that happens, I think that we can move on or try to move on. But no, before reconciliation happens, I think people need to answer to the things that they did.”

Thompson said there is a danger in calling for unity when all parties may not agree on the definition of unity.

“While I applaud anyone who is looking for ways of righting wrongs, I am not an advocate of trivializing the word unity, when it is only self serving, or when it only benefits to sort of pacify a body of people who are trying to not necessarily be held accountable for their actions,” Thompson said. “Unity without some level of accountability, in my opinion, it’s just another a pacifying word that, in the end will not bring the peace, and will not bring the level of equality that will definitely move this country or move a society forward.”