Real Talk About MLK DayJan 16, 2023
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, better known as MLK Day. Many people will post their favorite MLK quote on their social media. Some white allies will even join in marches around the country remembering the legacy of Dr. King, usually quoting from his "I Have A Dream" speech. Today is often filled with remembrance, but in too many spaces and places just more talk.
It’s time to have some “real talk” about the misuse of Dr. King’s quotes as it pertains to moving the needle to anti-racist schools and communities. We all can learn so much if we examine Dr. King’s legacy which unapologetically embraced action to create equity moving from “more talk” to “real talk”.
In this episode you will learn:
- How MLK quotes are used to undermine his legacy.
- The difference between “more talk” and “real talk”.
- Tips to move from awareness to action on MLK Day and beyond.
Let's get started!
It is no secret that our country has become more poloraized in the last several years which makes today, MLK Day, an awesome opportunity to reflect and recommit to taking action to create a community of true belonging. Today, as we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on MLK Day, let us not forget the true nature of his struggle for civil rights. Dr. King was a passionate advocate for justice, actively engaging in civil disobedience and daring to challenge the status quo.
He faced government persecution, including bombings, physical assault, and arrest on 30 separate occasions in the pursuit of equality. In recent years, his words have been misused to silence critiques of white supremacy, obscuring the reality of his powerful activism. As we reflect on his legacy, let us not misrepresent his actions and beliefs as he inspired a nation to create a world of inclusion, justice, and equality.
Each year on this particular holiday, the quote I often see on TV, social media etc., is from Dr. King’s "I Have A Dream" speech.
“I have a dream that my four little 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.”
~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is a great quote from one of the most revered speeches in the 20th century…but the speech actually consists of more than just those 2-3 sentences. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s quote is often misused to support the idea that being "colorblind" is a positive trait. This is a harmful and dismissive perspective, particularly for people of color who experience discrimination and prejudice based on their skin color. It is important to recognize that the experiences of people of color are the result of systemic racism and that our society is still far from being "post-race". Refusing to acknowledge race or racial disparities is not only misguided, but also undermines the struggles of marginalized communities.
Dr. King delivered this famous speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963 where more than a quarter million people participated gathering near the Lincoln Memorial.
Martin Luther King Jr. told the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 'I have a dream'. (Aug. 28) AP
As a result of that march, Dr. King along with other prominent leaders in the Civil Rights Movement lobbied Congress and held meetings with US administration including Presidents John F. Kennedy and eventually Lyndon Johnson which resulted in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, with provisions reflecting the demands of that march. His work as a speaker and activist was expansive and wide-reaching, leading to the passage of important laws such as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, among many other accomplishments. While these moments are incredibly important, they were not the end of his efforts, but rather one step in a long legacy of calls to action that he advocated for during his lifetime.
It is important to not reduce Dr. King's legacy to a few select, non-threatening lines that majority culture likes to remember and only teach one dimensionally in our schools. We recognize the full scope of his work and the ongoing struggle for racial equality that he dedicated his life to and can honor his legacy by continuing to fight for social justice in our own lives.
In fact, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the March on Washington, he described a “fierce urgency of now” reminding a divided nation “that we need one another, and that we are stronger when we march forward together”. As a diverse nation, it is crucial that we acknowledge and address the existence of white supremacy and institutional racism in our communities and institutions. The phrase "the fierce urgency of now" is not only a call to action, but also a call to acknowledge the truth about these issues.
Without truth, there can be no justice.
We must move beyond mere words and actively work to dismantle these systems of oppression that have caused immense harm to communities of color and hindered the growth and progress of our nation. We must be intentional and dedicated in our efforts to combat white supremacy and institutional racism.
To engage in Dr. King’s call to action of "the fierce urgency of now", it is critical we take opportunities given to all on MLK Day to stop having “more talk” and empty commitments, but instead engage in “real talk” that actually disrupts racism in our country.
Recently, I had the opportunity to read Anti-Racism 4REALS: Real Talk with Real Strategies in Real Time for Real Change by Sheila M. Beckford and E. Michelle Ledder. Both authors are United Methodist pastors and deeply engaged in action oriented anti-racist work. The premise of their book is to move beyond “more talk” which promotes harm because it is usually only talk and instead engage in “real talk” which interrupts harm by encouraging anti-racist action.
Now you might be asking yourself how this particular book connects to MLK Day. Let me close the loop.
In his "I Have A Dream" speech, third paragraph actually, Dr. King warns of the dangers associated with the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism”.
“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the slow and patient approach to fighting against the injustices faced by millions created a false sense of progress. He feared that by only making small changes to address injustices, people were led to believe that significant progress was being made when in reality very little was accomplished. He argued that this gradualist approach was not only misguided but also risky in the long term.
You see, Dr. King made many speeches and one of my personal favorites expands on the concept of “the fierce urgency of now” which he introduced in his "I Have A Dream" speech a few years earlier. On April 4, 1967, at a meeting of clergy at Riverside Church in New York City, Dr. King spoke on the war in Vietnam with fiery passion.
One year before his assassination, Dr. King delivered these words at the meeting:
"We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time."
~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In those few sentences, Dr. King gave us, BIPOC and white allies, our marching orders - to not delay in changing our society which is a lesson we continue to struggle and fully embrace. So what action can each of us take to finally right societal wrongs particualry as it pertains to Black Americans and other marginalized communities?
Tips to Move From Awareness to Action on MLK Day
Here are 5 actions you can take to move from “more talk” to real talk” on MLK Day and beyond:
- Educate yourself: Learn about the history and current state of systemic racism and its impact on communities of color. Take the time to understand the ways in which racism operates in our society and how it affects different groups of people.
- Amplify voices of marginalized communities: Listen to and lift up the voices of people of color, particularly those who have been directly affected by systemic racism. Support their leadership and amplify their messages in your community.
- Support anti-racist organizations: Find and support organizations working towards racial justice and equity. Whether it's through donations, volunteering, or advocacy, find ways to support their work.
- Address racist behavior and language: Speak out against racist behavior and language in your community, whether it's in your workplace, school, or personal life. This includes calling out microaggressions and implicit biases.
- Advocate for policy change: Write to your elected representatives, advocate for policies that address systemic racism, and hold them accountable for their actions. Support policies and initiatives that promote equity and justice for marginalized communities.
It's important to remember that addressing systemic racism is a continuous process, and it's important to keep learning, growing, and taking actions towards creating a more just society just as Dr. King did.
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