Martin Luther King day


I was just talking to a friend of mine, with the television “celebration” of Martin Luther King day in the background. And we were talking about how false that celebration is in many ways. That people are often not celebrating the real person, but almost a Disney version of who he was, what he accomplished, and what life was like at the time he was around.

My friend grew up in Chicago. She became inspired towards political activism when Dr. King marched through her neighborhood. But she also remembers that, in her white neighborhood, people were openly talking about going out and bashing him with baseball bats. He was hated, and people wanted him dead. She said that even if you were a white person who just supported him or the movement he was a part of, you were a target for harassment, assault, and possibly murder as well. People openly and frequently used some of the vilest terms for black people possible when referring to him and his supporters.

She said the television portrayals make it look like most ordinary people loved him at the time he was making these speeches. If that had been true to the extent it’s portrayed at times, he wouldn’t have had so urgently to make those speeches and lead those protests. Many of the people who today celebrate their particular whitewashed (the double meaning there is intentional) idea of him, at the time would have been completely against him, possibly even among the ones advocating violence towards him, and that is rarely acknowledged.

Generally if a person makes big changes in the world, and people think they’re wonderful a long time after they’re dead, there’s a good chance that the same people wouldn’t have found them so wonderful when they were alive. Fighting racism means, among other things, getting white people to change. And most white people, find it all well and good to speak out against some kind of injustice if they think it’s not close to them and they won’t have to do anything about it. Dr. King forced change, and white people were not happy about the idea they had to change anything. He is far more palatable to the same exact sorts of people, after his death and when they can claim (inaccurately) that the fight they are fighting is all done and they don’t have to change anymore.

And that’s another thing rarely acknowledged — that the fight isn’t even close to over. Things have come a long way in some areas, but racism is alive and well in America. The television often makes it look like there was this awful thing going on and Dr. King came along and made inspiring speeches and fixed it. That’s the myth taught to children, but it isn’t the reality. Dr. King would probably be horrified by many aspects of racism and poverty in America if he saw them today. At the time he died, he was becoming more and more outspoken about these things. Many of the problems he noticed are still with us, and many of the problems he predicted came true.

I’ve seen or heard these television specials in the background my entire life, and I’ve always been vaguely unsettled by something about them. I’m glad my friend had enough political knowledge to articulate why: Because they’re not about the real events, but a warped version that is more palatable to certain powerful segments of American society. The real events were much more important, and involving much more serious conflict from far more people, than is usually let on in TV specials. For many white people, saying racism is bad, is just fine with them, until they have to change something they’re doing. That is as true then as it is now, but we’re led to believe that the problems are all over, or mostly over, when unfortunately we’ve barely begun in many areas.

So I’d like to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King as a real person, who helped accomplish real things, and who would obviously not be remotely satisfied with the way things remain even after the accomplishments of the movement he was part of. And I’d like to celebrate him whether it happens to be the one particular day of the year dedicated to him or not. I’d also like to see white people stop talking about racism in the past tense, as if it was something fought and conquered sometime in the past that nobody has to worry about anymore, or as if it’s something white people don’t have to worry about anymore. It’s still going on in a big way, and white people are pretty close to the only people who have the luxury of not noticing it or pretending it doesn’t exist.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

20 responses »

  1. King’s iconic image is profoundly ingrained in the hearts of people who see him as a man who changed the world with LOVE. We so often see the opposite of love as hate, but biblically it is fear. “Perfect love drives out all fear.” Those who purport to hate, actually fear those whose lives they cannot understand, or whose very existence threatens their insecure, self-loathing natures.

    Love and fear cannot co-exist.

    It speaks to the handicapped who are seen as “others”, too, who are “not like us.” Fear is a powerful emotion…

    In these times when we want to change the meme of the handicapped as less than, much in the way blacks were (are) seen as less than, the greatest power we could use against those who use their own fear to “box us in”, is love. It has to begin with love of self before it can be given to others, in my mind.

    Love of self, and belief in one’s own worthiness is the beginning of change for those who are oppressed. Dr. King allowed many people to believe in and love themselves, and with that powerful start, to love others, even those who would harm them.

    Jesus is seen as meek and mild, but he chose to love those whom others saw as unworthy, giving them the power to love themselves, and to deny the judgment of those who, in their own weak nature, falsely believed they were superior.

    Like you, I’m working on something here, and hope I’m making some sense. Instead of hating those who persecute us, we take their power (of fear) away by loving them, as we love ourselves.

    The basis of this whole diatribe is a black woman I work with who, in celebration of Dr. King, kept telling the kids, “How do we change the world??? With LOVE!!!”

    Not the sappy, hearts and flowers kind of love…but the fearless love we are called on to give to others.

  2. Hi Amanda. You are so right that many people think civil rights is ancient history, when in fact there is much more to be done.

    Yesterday, Barack Obama gave an outstanding speech at Dr. King’s church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, about the struggle to change hearts and minds, and how much more remains to be done. Here’s an excerpt:

    The Scripture tells us that we are judged not just by word, but by deed. And if we are to truly bring about the unity that is so crucial in this time, we must find it within ourselves to act on what we know; to understand that living up to this country’s ideals and its possibilities will require great effort and resources; sacrifice and stamina.

    And that is what is at stake in the great political debate we are having today. The changes that are needed are not just a matter of tinkering at the edges, and they will not come if politicians simply tell us what we want to hear. All of us will be called upon to make some sacrifice. None of us will be exempt from responsibility. We will have to fight to fix our schools, but we will also have to challenge ourselves to be better parents. We will have to confront the biases in our criminal justice system, but we will also have to acknowledge the deep-seated violence that still resides in our own communities and marshal the will to break its grip.

    That is how we will bring about the change we seek. That is how Dr. King led this country through the wilderness. He did it with words – words that he spoke not just to the children of slaves, but the children of slave owners. Words that inspired not just black but also white; not just the Christian but the Jew; not just the Southerner but also the Northerner.

    He led with words, but he also led with deeds. He also led by example. He led by marching and going to jail and suffering threats and being away from his family. He led by taking a stand against a war, knowing full well that it would diminish his popularity. He led by challenging our economic structures, understanding that it would cause discomfort. Dr. King understood that unity cannot be won on the cheap; that we would have to earn it through great effort and determination.

  3. I enjoyed reading that………..I agree completely………I have a black friend who tells me all the time that racism has NOT gone away………….

    it’s just that people have gotten more covert about it recently…………some have. it’s even more poisonous in a way than before……..

    I would like to add your blog to my blogroll….wasn’t sure whether to ask first or not so I did…….


  4. You might like the book “Lies My Teacher Told Me”. It’s a history book about all the whitewashed myths, outright falsehoods, misinterpretations, and lies by omission that children are taught in their history classes. It’s pretty thorough and very interesting (although I tend to like history books anyway, so I’m a little biased) and all verifiable. I know you have a lot of books you want to read, but you might want to consider adding this one to your list.

  5. I don’t know about covert discrimination. It seems to me that often, rather than the discrimination being *hidden*, it’s actually so pervasive that we just don’t see it. Today’s covert discrimination is tomorrow’s overt discrimination.

  6. I like that book. I’ve only read bits and pieces of it, but it was pretty good.

    I remember when I was in elementary school, that the materials portrayed the civil rights movement as something that happened in the 60s, and now we’ve learned our lesson and are a tolerant society where those injustices don’t happen anymore. I think this is partly why there are people growing up who scoff when racism comes up today: they believe that it’s done and over, and that people still talking about it are lingering on a dead issue. It’s sad to see otherwise well-meaning people thinking this way. It’s like saying, “Well, the building I work in is wheelchair accessible, therefore there is no more work to be done in disability rights.”

  7. I agree. A lot of white people think that racism is something only “bad people” do…and racism isn’t only done by *people* in the firt place.

    As a white person, I benefit from a racist society. All white people in America benefit from a racist society, whether they asked to or not. All men benefit sexism, all non-disabled people benefit from ableism, etc. I didn’t ask to benefit, but I do. I benefit in all kinds of ways that are hard for me to see, because I’ve grown up with those benefits and take them for granted.

    A lot of people who are privileged get REAL defensive real fast if their privileges get threatened.

  8. Interesting, Amanda, there is an article that brings up this very topic about Dr. King. Though, the article blames the “frozen in time” whitewashing on Dr. King’s activity post-“I have a dream”. The 1963 speech and march was a culmination of Dr. King’s popularity and power. However, when all was said and done, he wanted to continue to work on tangible changes. The article asserts that when Dr. King worked on labor and poverty issues, he lost favor and became a hated figure.
    Eradicating the Jim Crow laws of the South was an important but symbolic task of the Civil Rights Movement. But meaningless if that movement stopped at that point.

    the article:

  9. Martin Luther King was among the targets of COINTELPRO, a government agency which put activists and violent extremists on lists of people to keep under close surveillance (and equating peaceful protesters and activists with KKK members and Neo-Nazis). After watching the video you posted last year of Naomi Wolf’s speech, and after seeing how autistic advocates still face the same kind of discrimination, I have realized that the same kind of treatment can take place today upon those considered to be dissonants.

  10. “dissidents” I think is what you meant, Kevin……..

    Ettina: makes sense………I was kind of in a hurry when I was posting that so I didn’t really think about it……..

    abfh: rock on for mentioning Barack Obama………who by the way has a much better view about autistic and other disabled people than some of the others…… in particular……….


  11. I would question myself whether all white people benefit from the keeping of black people down in the way suggested. (The same goes for disabled, women and so on) as I think this ignores the central dynamic in society – that a minority own the wealth and everyone else has to struggle, working in most cases for profit-making corporations who don’t give a damn about them. In that situation, it’s hard to say how, for example, the average white factory worker, call centre worker of burger flipper at McDonald’s is ‘benefiting’ from the oppression of black people, disabled people, or women, except in a very limited sense.

  12. Amanda,

    I agree. In fact I’ve just finished writing something rather similar myself.

    I think that Dr. King probably *would* be disappointed with the large amount of racism still present in today’s society. But what I realized yesterday (and maybe I’m slow in coming to this conclusion) is that even in 1963, when the situation was much worse, he actually believed that we could all overcome racism even in the face of tremendous personal hatred. To me, his words seem as relevant now as they did then, and they present his genius – getting people to believe that they could overcome their differences and come together. Which is something that I, and I’m sure many other disillusioned people from all races, was starting to lose hope in. Any fight for equality is sure to include the law, nitty-gritty details, and a massive front of strength. I think that’s what’s most often remembered about Dr. King. But what seems most significant to me right now is that throughout the fight, he never came to an “us vs. them” sort of attitude.

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  14. rocobley, it’s that all other things being equal, if you throw a white person and a black person into the same situation, the white person will generally be treated better and given more advantages. It’s still easier (again, all other things being equal) for white people to climb out of poverty than black people, for instance (not that such a climb ought to be the only or preferred way to handle poverty, but in America, it’s a common one). And yes, it’s a generalization. And yes, class is also a major problem, but it’s not the only problem in the world any more than racism is. There are all sorts of ways that people get advantages and disadvantages of various sorts in a society that’s slanted towards certain kinds of people over others.

    This isn’t meant to make anyone feel guilty (in fact if they are, they don’t understand the problem), it’s just a fact. If I had had the same general body (including brain) type I do now, but been poor and/or anything other than white, instead of white and middle-class, I would not have been given the level of “understanding” I got on my IQ test (disregarding my weaknesses, at least according to the tape I found) as I did as a kid, and might not even have been tested in the same manner — and if I was sitting here typing this, I might have been typing it as someone who’d grown up being considered of either average or below-average IQ rather than above-average. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me or that I ought to feel bad for what I did get, it just means I got advantages in life that not every autistic person gets, that in fact probably most do not get.

    And no, this doesn’t mean I believe every single widget that comes with some sort of theory I’ve heard of but never grasped. It just means that I notice that people tend to get advantages and disadvantages in life based on broad categories and widespread biases that are more part of how a society fits together than part of individual people (this doesn’t mean individual people can’t do anything to change things, it just means that one individual person, while good, is not enough).

    And saying that in general white people get advantages other people don’t get, doesn’t say there aren’t other forms of unfair advantage in a society, and doesn’t say how much of an advantage one thing is compared to another, and doesn’t say that there aren’t nuances to this, and doesn’t say that there’s any need for some sort of separated us-vs-them worldview. It just says this exists and that it’s wrong.

    I do know from learning about racism, that the whole idea of “It’s not racism, it’s just classism, and that’s all there is to it” is horribly flawed, and doesn’t grasp the extent of racism that exists. Particularly in the USA, which is a country built upon it to a degree most people don’t even realize. It’s possible to work to change a whole lot of things, a person doesn’t have to pick just one. And a person doesn’t have to see the entire world through the lens of just one kind of injustice either: Yes, class plays into a lot of things, including disability (and even our notions of what is disability and what isn’t, as well as the hierarchies of disability). But it’s not the only way to analyze the problems in a society (at that point, it just becomes a widget, and I don’t do widgets).

    Dr. King never settled for only fighting racism — the tendency of people to settle for only fighting one thing, and acting like this work is not part of something broader, and splintering into teeny-tiny groups and insisting that is the only way to be, came after his time, and would never have been part of his ethics. He was also committed to fighting poverty and the situations that give rise to it. And a lot of other things. This isn’t an us-vs-them, pick-just-one, zero sum sort of thing. There are a lot of injustices in the world and there’s never, ever been a need to work to change only one of them at a time.

  15. I would question myself whether all white people benefit from the keeping of black people down in the way suggested.

    Along with what Amanda said, I don’t think any “ism” (racism, classism, sexism, etc), is always about consciously keeping people down. Where I live, I can go anywhere and find lots of other white people there. I can turn on the TV, and see lots and LOTS of white people represented. That’s part of white privilege.

    In America, we’re getting ready for our presidential election, and voting to decide on who the nominee of each party will be. One party has 3 strong candidates: one’s a white woman, one is a black man, and one is a white man. We’ve never had a female or black president, and the news media keeps focusing on the races and genders of the candidates. Newsmen ask silly things like: “Will black women vote for their race or their gender?” and people say stuff like “Oh my gosh! A woman or a black man could become president! This is a historic moment!” (And usually they forget that the third white male candidate could still get the nomination).

    All this focus on the candidates’ identities–and not on, like, their policies–is racist and sexist in itself. It’s not just that white women and black men have been kept out of that political space–although they have. It’s also that when they enter that space, people are so fascinated with thee *because* they are black men or (white) women that they can’t focus on anything else.

  16. Yeah, exactly what you said about it not having anything to do with conscious decisions. I am always befuddled when I discuss this stuff and it becomes about whether people “mean to” or not.

    I mean… I went to a school that was mostly made up of kids a lot richer than me. I got the sense that it wasn’t that these kids made some conscious decision about class. I mean they were born into their classes like anyone.

    But they never seemed to have to think about anyone poorer than them (which was most of the world). It was an option they could just turn off. And if they did think of anyone poorer than them, it was considered a sign of great virtue. But bringing $50 or $100 bills to the snack bar and being baffled when the woman who worked there (who was not paid a whole lot) got snippy with them about it… they were just oblivious, and they were able to be oblivious. They were in this little bubble that made them capable (unless they had family or friends that crossed the class divide) to not even notice class all the time, or even to have to. Or for that matter to notice that not everyone in the world had several houses and flew around the world all the time for fun.

    And that kind of oblivious little bubble, and the circumstances that allow it to exist, is often far more harmful than something deliberate.

    Able-bodied people get to be mostly oblivious to disability for the same reasons. Especially since the world as it currently works affords the option for disabled people to be shoved into little “special” places for us where nobody has to deal with us (but of course we have to deal with them). And that bubble effect, and things related to it, cause a lot of damage, even death, among disabled people (and even allows people to think that our deaths are better than our lives, in a way unique to disabled people). It can’t be underestimated just because people aren’t deliberately “keeping people down”.

    I have a limited experience of rich adults, but certainly rich kids seemed to have no intentional malice towards middle-class, working-class, and poor people, they just had a very limited world where they don’t have to think about them, nor about how, in the case of some of the kids I knew, their parents’ companies (since many of them were children of CEOs — argh, I still don’t know what a CEO does aside from “run a corporation” and those are just more patterns of words to me, “executive” has no meaning to me either, I will not torture my brain on this further, I just know they’re high up and make a lot of money) benefited from exploiting them in sub-standard working conditions for too little pay etc etc etc. This was just not part of their world as far as I know.

    (The caste system there was presented in a way that was supposed to sound a little neat and fun. Seriously.)

    So you don’t have to notice, understand, or condone (or indeed feel any particular way at all about) this kind of inequality to benefit from it, and I thought that was understood, thus got confused about rocobley’s statements and how to react to them.

  17. Rocobley, look up “driving while black.” That’s a pretty basic difference between how black men experience the world as compared to white men. Another reference to look up is “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” which lists several ways society treats white people differently from black people.

  18. Using a post about Martin Luther King to espouse “white pride” viewpoints, is not even remotely the sort of thing I’m going to allow here. I’m posting this comment for the information of the person who’s attempted to post five such comments in rapid succession: They’ve been deleted, and any further ones will continue to be deleted. You’ll have to take it elsewhere, I’m not going to allow my blog to be used as a vehicle of hate.

    And, to be clear…

    When I talked about modern-day racism, I meant racism against people of color, not some bizarre myth that white people are the main victims of racism and people of color its main beneficiaries (WTF?). When I talked about Dr. King being likely to be disturbed by what he’d see if he were alive today, I was not saying that he’d be supporting “white pride” causes. I wouldn’t think I’d have to point that out, but I’m pointing it out.

  19. Amanda:

    The job description of a CEO is pretty vague, but you got the idea. Running a corporation…………which can mean almost an infinite number of different things.

    Executive in that sense just means “head of….” nothing more. No mention about job skills……..etc.

    sometimes I think this stuff is intended for some reason to appear more complicated than it really is.

    The title just gives a lot of those people really inflated egos and bragging rights and ridiculous benefits and………so on.

    There are notable exceptions to the stereotype of a CEO, but that’s what first comes to mind for me.

    Never underestimate the level of idiocy you will encounter at any moment…..(re: the attempted posting of white pride comments on this particular post…..)

  20. There’s no arguing that Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) has had gone totally some developmental stages on HBO’s Dedicated Blood this season. She has understandable into her own when it comes to accepting her loyal stamp as a vampire and it has made for some uncommonly notable moments on Season 4. Woo says that of all the characters on Genuine Blood this season, Jessica stands revealed the most in his inclination on account of the make a pilgrimage she took in the passage of the season. And he celebrates the homicidal redhead with his five favorite scenes featuring the angst-ridden vamp below.

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