Many of us fall into the comfortable routine of seeing MLK Day as a celebration of America’s eradication of racism, but it’s imperative to remind ourselves that Martin Luther King, Jr. was our starting point, not our resolution. This Sunday, we’ll take an honest look at the role Martin Luther King, Jr. played in America’s past and present relationship with racism.
by Rowan Fixemer
In the 1960s, UUCE’s Reverent Paul Bicknell had a weekly raido spot. The bits weren’t long, but they came from the depths of his heart. The April 10, 1968 broadcast was six days after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Here is what Rev. Bicknell had to say:
Reverend Bicknell’s plea of almost 54 years ago could have been written today. It could’ve been written at any point during my life. Even though I hadn’t heard of Unitarian Universalism and had little knowledge of progressive activism, and even though I learned the bare minimum about Dr. King from social studies, his story lodged into my soul. He was one of many, but he was the one most recent, the one who sparked something in my heart, the one who got me asking questions of my strictly Catholic, conservative family.
My grandparents had staunch opinions about King. My grandfather was an Indiana State Trooper during the sixties, and he didn’t like troublemakers. Grandma and Grandpa hated Dr. King. They told me that he “caused trouble wherever he went.” I was astounded at the vitriol they held toward someone I saw as a hero. That was one of the seminal moments that I saw the blatant racism in my family. It was heartbreaking, but it made me look at his story from both sides. Fortunately, I decided that yes, Dr. King was a hero and I was able to stick to that.
It sounds like this is about me, but it really isn’t. This is about the shining hope that Dr. King projected that the world could be better for Black people. This was about how, decades after his murder, and with all the whitewashing of sanitized history books, he still had the power to inspire a White kid from a racist family and community in Indiana.
Now, twenty-five or thirty years after that revelation, Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to inspire me, and my second-grader is also finding that inspiration. The other day, she came home from school and told me they learned about him at school. She also told me that when their teacher said he was killed by a White man, the class went silent. My child almost started crying when she said, “He was a good man!”
Yes, my love, he was a good man.
A few years ago, on a chilly Monday off of work in January, I began to think about my past personal relationship with MLK day. In the first few weeks of the year, I was often drifting off the high of the holidays in the distance, making goals for the New Year, drinking a few green smoothies, and going to the gym for the only time that year as I checked my work emails to see a surprise pleasant reminder that this week, I had an extra day off work! Thanks, MLK! What a treat! So glad we all worked really hard to get rid of racism in America so we can have a day off to relax and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done! I would scroll through Facebook, read a few cherry-picked, cheerful quotes from the man himself, maybe even repost the same tired out recycled picture of his face with a sentence or two of sentimental words that have been shared millions of times year after year and would go on about my day.
You see, I had already done the work…I considered myself to be a strong ally. I actively challenged my own internal biases, I knew white supremacy was bullshit, most of my friends were people of color and the only vaguely racist people I actually associated with were some old family members who “just grew up in different times”. And that’s where my involvement stopped. My relationship with eradicating racism was an individual, quiet, personal endeavor.
About 15 seconds into my self-reflection, I was immediately embarassed.
I realized that like most Americans, my current engagement in MLK day and “fighting” racism in general had become completely passive at best and performative at worst. Celebrating MLK day felt no different to me than running through the motions of any other government holiday. A brief remembrance of the tragedy that once was, and a quick celebration of how far we’ve come. The scripts for each year’s memorial tributes and classroom lesson plans expertly refined and passed down for the past 54 years to tell a calculated happy story of America’s swift and final triumph over racism.
When Education Falls Short
I remember as a child learning about slavery, the Civil Rights movement and MLK. I remember the tattered, ancient looking black and white photos of Ruby Bridges…Rosa Parks…Harriet Tubman in the 4 or 5 page “Black History” section of my “American History” textbook. The few days we spent going over canned inspirational stories of powerful and peaceful activists were meticulously painted like a distant fairytale. Something that happened hundreds of years ago and had since been resolved. Something that I certainly had no active part in or responsibility for.
But did you know that Ruby Bridges, one of the first African-American children to desegregate our public schooling system currently has a twitter account? Or that the people violently protesting her entering a “white” school were your parents’ age. Or that many of you were starting kindergarten the same year she was.
Did you know that I was in middle school when Rosa Parks died?
And did you also know that color photography was widely used prior to and during the 1960s, so there’s no good reason for photos of MLK and other civil rights activists and news of the time to be solely portrayed in black and white photography other than to intentionally create a false sense of distance from the situation in our understanding and education of racism? Instead of displaying it in modern day, full color as it truly exists.
As I’m sure many people would agree, my yearly brief civil rights education intentionally made it seem like we were lightyears beyond the issue when in reality, we’re not even a generation away from it, and we continue to fight these exact same battles to this day.
Like many people my age, my active participation in being “anti-racist” amped up early summer of 2020 during the George Floyd protests shortly after I had moved to San Francisco.
While it seemed obvious to me the stance that should have been taken on the matter, a not insignificant number of Americans had alternative thoughts on the situation. Even people who I personally considered to be anti-racist were very vocally condemning the acts of Civil Rights protesters. As I sat cross legged, peacefully blocking traffic in front of the courthouse downtown, I read post after post reprimanding protestors for the manner in which they chose to do so. It was too destructive, too loud, too radical, too inconvenient and not at ALL how MLK would have handled the situation. “Didn’t you know we had all learned that, MLK stood for peace!?”
But as UU Reverend Aisha Ansano writes in her short essay “The Flawed Understanding of Martin Luther King, Jr.“:
Who Was King, Really?
To me, it’s clear that there has been a massive miscommunication in this country surrounding MLKs message. The reality is, MLK had much more in common with today’s “radical left social justice warriors waging war in the streets” than we were ever taught. And that our whitewashed, watered-down version of his ideals are actively being used as a weapon against current Civil Rights movements that I believe he would have advocated for if he were here today.
In his time, MLK was hated. He was considered a radical threat to America. He was loud, he was angry and he disrupted everyday American life in a desperate plea to be heard, and now he’s dead because of it. And I believe that leaving this out of the story while simultaneously painting it as a story of the distant past, is doing us a direct disservice when we’re discussing how to advocate for change today.
As his daughter stated just last year on MLK day, “Please don’t act like everyone loved my father. He was assassinated. A 1967 poll reflected that he was one of the most hated men in America. Most hated. Many who quote him now and evoke him to deter justice today would likely hate, and may already hate, the authentic King.”
Our country’s choice to view Dr. King through rose colored glasses is doing nothing but further oppressing the black community while praising ourselves. The very point of protest is to make the oppressor so uncomfortable that they have no choice but to change. And while Dr. King’s goal may have ultimately been one of peace; we still have an abundance of radical work to be done before this is realistically an option.
Centering the Right Voices
So, it was about right here in putting together this sermon that I realized I’ve quickly fallen into the trap of spending a lot of time centering this discussion around myself. “What has been MY relationship with MLK day?” “What do I think needs to be done to repair the damage and move forward?” when in reality…people like me have had the floor for hundreds of years now, and clearly that’s not getting us very far. I think I would be hard pressed to find a member of the black community who wants to hear another white girl rant about her thoughts on Dr. King and fixing racism in this country for 20 minutes straight as opposed to amplifying black voices on the matter.
With this said, a few weeks ago, I chose to reach out to an online forum of about 40,000 people in America and specifically asked for the input of black voices regarding their thoughts on MLK day. I asked: what would YOU like to see white people doing every day moving forward to repair the ongoing damage of racism in America and what looks like ACTUAL, non-performative progress to you? I received quite a few responses and would like to share a summary of the 4 most popular overarching responses.
Acknowledge the Suffering
If you were here during my sermon a few weeks ago, we discussed listening to, validating and believing people’s experiences. Often, the first and hardest step to repairing the damage…is acknowledging that it exists in the first place, and that whether intentionally or not, we actively benefit from said damage.
In my own experience, I know that it can often feel like a direct attack on our character to even acknowledge that we may have unknowingly been the oppressor our entire lives. But how can we possibly begin to fix a problem, if we’re consistently unwilling to fully admit that it even exists?
Good news, I’m going to let you off the hook a little bit. If you hadn’t zoned out during the first half of this sermon, you know that it’s not directly your fault that growing up, you weren’t taught, and therefore didn’t realize, that this was still an ongoing problem. However, the way in which you respond as an adult to black Americans telling us there is still a problem is directly your responsibility.
I ask you to Imagine screaming your entire life for help, only to be told over and over again that nothing’s wrong, the problem was fixed years ago, and that your fixation on the problem is only making it worse. How would you ever make any progress in repairing and moving forward, if your house was still on fire, and everyone around you pretended this fire didn’t exist because the flames had been keeping their family warm for generations?
I think that unfortunately America is still stuck perpetually repeating this first step over and over. Every few years the Civil Rights movement gets some attention and the masses ask: “why are they still yelling?” or “can’t they see that we solved this already?” and the best of us point fingers at and condemn the “real” racists while making no effort to acknowledge our own role in the suffering and go on about our guilt free lives until the next time they’re too loud again. The simplest thing that we can do, has been our hardest thing yet. Acknowledge there is a problem, that we benefit from it, and that it is our problem to fix.
Use Your Privilege
Okay, great job, you’ve done the work, acknowledged the house is on fire and have stopped ignoring the problem/actively throwing more gasoline on it.
Even though you personally have stopped feeding the fire, unfortunately it’s still burning strong, and even some of your friends, family members, coworkers and the rest of the community keep throwing logs on to keep their family warm.
In an effort for self preservation, it feels instinctual to not disrupt the status quo, no one wants to be a source of confrontation. No one wants to be the person who makes a scene at Thanksgiving dinner because Grandpa said something racist. No one wants to potentially put their own wellbeing in jeopardy, but this is where our deepest power lies. We may not be able to tackle the giant fire as a whole, but we can certainly put out the small ones around us in an attempt to stop feeding it.
As a white person, regardless of the difficulties you may have faced in life, you hold the privilege in this situation. It’s generally safe for you to challenge the powers that be, because you’re equipped with the fireproof gear so it’s your responsibility to be the one who speaks up. It is directly our responsibility to have the difficult conversations with the people in our lives.
Because when you’re looking at a problem as serious and pervasive as this, your silence on the matter is often just as violent as those actively perpetuating it.
So when your coworker or friend or family member says or does something problematic, don’t just laugh and shrug it off in an effort to keep the peace. Use your privilege and take the opportunity to immediately shut them down, because it’s likely that they are going to take criticism from you more seriously than criticism from the people their violence is directed at.
Seize every opportunity to firmly and consistently take away their platform until it becomes almost impossible for them to start or feed anymore fires.
Educate Yourself and the People Around You
Often when matters of social justice are center stage, we look to those who are actively being oppressed to educate us. Because why not? It makes sense. They’re the ones with the problem so why don’t THEY educate us on it and give us the solution? And while amplifying black voices should always be first and foremost when it’s offered, we should not be relying on the oppressed to educate the oppressor. Can you imagine your house being on fire…and being forced to educate the arsonist on why what they’re doing is harmful? I imagine you would most likely be so exhausted from fighting the fire every day that the thought of kindly educating the ones starting it, would not be high on your to-do list.
Luckily, if you’ve logged on to listen to this sermon today, you most likely have access to the internet and know how to use google. Use this to your advantage! In this day and age you have every resource at your disposal to equip yourself with the knowledge necessary to fight systemic racism, so use it wisely!
Put in the effort to take on the responsibility of educating yourself, over relying on oppressed communities to hold your hand and do it for you.
And if you’ve already mastered this…great job! Now it’s time to also educate the people around you when possible.
For a lot of us, that starts at home with our children.
I know it doesn’t feel like an easy topic to bring up with the tiny humans, but this is where educating the ones around you can have the most long-term impact. As I mentioned earlier…the education your child may be receiving on Black History is most likely lacking and incorrect…if it exists at all. And as a parent or aunt or grandparent it’s your responsibility to step in and fill in the gaps.
A fear that’s been recently brought up quite a bit is that our children are too young and innocent to hear of and deal with the inevitable guilt associated with the violence of our racist past, but meanwhile black children are forced every day to actively endure the violence of our racist present.
When you give them the space and tools to do so, our children are capable and incredible little beings of good, and they are strong enough to be taught the honest seriousness of our history and how it affects our country today. Teaching our children the realities of racism does not perpetuate the problem, but instead gives them the resources to combat it.
Take it upon yourself to never stop learning and use that knowledge to take the burden off already exhausted people of color.
Uplift and Nurture Black Voices
Just like I did earlier, it’s natural to fall into centering ourselves and our own experiences in this discussion but it’s important to identify when your input may not be helpful, and it’s time to instead listen to and uplift the black voices around you.
Be comfortable with taking the back seat when appropriate, you don’t always have to be the center of attention. Because no matter how educated you may be, it may come as a shock, but you probably still don’t know everything and you certainly don’t know firsthand what it is like to actively live through their reality. So take time to listen to and nurture your relationships with your black friends. Make an effort to realize that sometimes the most valuable thing you can offer is to just be a safe space of respite and recovery from the fire.
The utmost respect of another human is to validate and value their worth, passions, words, work, contributions and just general existence on this planet. And oftentimes, black people in this country are not considered or valued outside of their struggle. Give them the space to exist with you fully and peacefully outside of their oppression.
What to Take Away
As we come to a close, I know that there is still so much to address.
In writing this sermon, I really struggled with how to condense such a huge subject into a quick and impactful discussion while doing it any real justice. And it’s clear that there is still a lot more to say and do and that to my dismay, after 54 years of celebrating MLK day we probably still didn’t solve racism today.
But if there’s one thing I hope that you think about this MLK day, it’s a renewed understanding of your responsibility to take an active role in repairing the existing damage and doing what you can to eradicate further damage in your everyday lives.
I know that it’s easier for us to push civil rights activism to the side lines because it doesn’t directly affect us. We’re all incredibly busy and overwhelmed and have a myriad of our “own” problems to deal with, and it’s instinctual for us to put it on the back burner because it’s “not our problem,” but at the end of the day, that thought in itself is a massive privilege.
I have the privilege to unplug and take off my “activism hat” for the day when I’m feeling tired of fighting.
But Black people don’t get to stop being black when they’re tired of having difficult conversations. Black people don’t get to stop being black when their application is overlooked because of their name. Black people don’t get to stop being black when they get pulled over because their brake light is out.
Black people don’t get the luxury of checking out from the systemic problems that we have created and continue to perpetuate.
So I challenge you to move forward as if this is your problem.
Because quite frankly it’s a privilege to think it’s not.
This is not a resolved issue of the past that we can afford to keep put on the back burner.
And our complacency in upholding the misconstrued ideals of MLK as an excuse to not upset the peace both as a country and in our personal relationships is irresponsible and is costing black people their lives.
It has been our turn to fight this since long before MLK, because it is very specifically our problem to fix and I believe wholeheartedly that we as a congregation are a particularly capable group of human beings to take the lead in the work ahead.