Platitudes and Dr. King
Let’s Get Some New Quotes
I am always curious what Dr. King would think of the holiday we have dedicated in his honor. Knowing what we know about his life from his own writings and anecdotes from close friends and family, he didn’t always like the spotlight. He worried endlessly that he wasn’t doing enough while simultaneously fearing he was becoming too much of the focal point. Most people don’t realize that Dr. King was an introvert. His energy had to recharge before he could go out and do everything all over again.
And over and over again.
Because, you see, we as a country didn’t always do the best job of listening to him. His soaring oratory form and blistering words were not always as effective as he would have liked. He was derided as too divisive. He wasn’t doing enough to bring everyone together. Articles and news stories at the time often asked: why was he always so focused on skin color? I remind my students that Dr. King never had high approval ratings; among whites, they never got above water. They often called him a communist and a socialist, among other things. At any given time, almost 75% of white people disapproved of his actions; a third of them said he brough his assassination upon himself.
Some things never change.
As we reckon with our racial past, there are so many that would really like to forget it. Just place it in the dust bin of history and never examine it closely. That seems easy. Safe. Comfortable. And those same people share similar quotes to commemorate MLK Day. “Content of their character”… “Darkness cannot drive out darkness”… “Hate is too great a burden to bear”…“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”…We know these quotes by heart; I don’t even need to share the whole one for you to recognize it.
However, these beatitudes miss so much of Dr. King’s message. There’s often a lot in those ellipses that we miss or ignore. He has been reduced to several one-liners that are meant to make us feel better about all the progress we’ve made. They allow us to virtue-signal without the work. What we forget about Dr. King is that he didn’t want us to stay in the realm of easy, safe, and comfortable. He was a firebrand and a rebel. To reduce him to these quotes is to miss the entire point. His other, less-quoted passages point to someone far more willing to criticize. Someone ready for the fights ahead. Someone who wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers. Someone who knew that our history defines our present and sets our future. Forgetting it is what sets us on a perilous road.
How about this one in 1963:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’”.
I doubt that many people have read past the first line of that quote; it’s pretty powerful and an indictment of our history.
Here’s another one from 1967:
“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
I remember the first time I saw that quote; it took my breath away a bit. I realized very quickly that he was right: we so often look past the dark parts of our history because staying ignorant makes us feel better. By making Dr. King more palatable, we have taken so much of what he said out of his message. He was angry and tired. His journey to educate was a long one, and the road blocks were put up at every turn. The real Dr. King, the one from the quotes above, would likely make most white people uncomfortable.
The last quote I will share really encapsulates the message I think Dr. King was trying so hard to get through to people:
“We must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
Tension. Not exactly the “too great a burden to bear” talk. His quote has more of an edge to it. How can we spur action and not just have people talk about it? That was the crux of his argument.
I hope that we listen to the real Dr. King as we celebrate the version with whom we feel most comfortable. The version that has echoes of the past, but the blurred edges reveal that we are forgetting sharp truths. We must reckon with our past; we can’t remove it from libraries and strip it from books just to make ourselves feel better. We have to face it, head on, and recognize the ugly truths. The truths that haven’t been sanitized to make them easier to swallow. Without that, we really do a disservice to the man that worked so hard to bring those truths to us. For Dr. King, I imagine that would be a most disappointing thing.