It seems like a lifetime ago when America elected its first Black president. I mean, 2020 alone lasted for like six years, so it makes sense that the extraordinary phenomenon that was Barack Obama’s presidency feels like a distant memory—especially since America would spend the next four years reminding us that it’s still America. I don’t call Obama’s presidency an “extraordinary phenomenon” because I think he was such a spectacular commander-in-chief, I just never completely lose sight of how amazing it is that a time came in America when someone who looks like he could’ve been some other president’s slave 200 years ago was elected to lead the nation.
Martin Luther King Jr. was too radical for America. He was a God-fearing Christian who white people today love to remember as a palatable colorblind negro who—based on the only passage of the “I Have a Dream” speech they tend to cite—judged people only by the content of their character. But he wasn’t murdered for being colorblind; he was murdered for seeing Black people as equal to white people. He was a man willing to die if it meant Black people would move even an inch further towards the mountaintop. America, at the time, despised him for it.
So here’s the question going into 2021: Is this his dream?
2020 wasn’t all bad. The racial reckoning that began over the summer doesn’t get enough credit for how significant it was.
It shouldn’t have taken the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery to bring about arguably the largest outpouring of Black Lives Matter energy the nation has seen. But they were killed…and more were killed, and Americans across demographics responded with massive, seemingly unending protests against systemic racism in policing and beyond.
Say what you will about the burning and looting that occasionally took place during BLM demonstrations, but activists proved that “no justice, no peace” is more than a platitude. And in response, Democrats who probably never publicly uttered the words “systemic racism” their entire careers were suddenly making it a central theme in their platforms. We’ve got lawmakers taking seriously the discussion of reparations. We’ve got them kneeling in Kente cloth to celebrate police reform legislation being passed. (That isn’t a commentary on how effective said reform initiatives have been, I’m just saying the legislation being on the table at all is a testament to the effectiveness of activism.)
So, this is the part where conservative America—the traditional America that Donald Trump vowed to make great again—starts imposing on us its palatable version of MLK who white folk treat like he’s Black America’s collective father. (They certainly tried it with his actual offspring.) They’ll tell us that when it comes to protest violence, MLK would never. King’s attitude toward rioting was much more nuanced than some will admit.
From his speech, “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement”:
Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting which is their principal feature serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse. Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking. But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights. There are thus elements of emotional catharsis in the violent act
If King were alive today and campaigning to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate (I know, he’d be mad old, but still), his empathy for violent anti-racism protesters would make him the subject of a Loeffler-approved “too radical for Georgia” ad. His words in The Trumpet of Conscience— “Nonviolent protest must now mature to a new level to correspond to heightened black impatience and stiffened white resistance. This higher level is mass civil disobedience”—could easily have been reduced to a white fear-inducing soundbite to rival Jeremiah Wright’s “Goddamn America.”
On Jan. 6—the same day Raphael Warnock’s, Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator, win was announced—America reminded us that it’s still America. We watched a largely white mob of MAGA enthusiasts storm the U.S. Capitol—not for equality or justice, but to disenfranchise voters by overturning election results based on Trump propaganda. We watched police respond with restraint that was absent during BLM unrest. We knew immediately that a Black mob storming the Capitol with violent intent would have ended in more than one dying via police bullet—especially in a riot that took the life of a cop. We watched as a sitting president—who never passed on a chance to condemn BLM or shout down the lawlessness that sometimes surrounded protests—told MAGA insurrectionists, “I know your pain” and “we love you.”
So is this MLK’s dream? Well, of course it isn’t, but here’s the thing: We really need to stop romanticizing his dream anyway.
Before King was a pastor, an activist or a martyr, he was a person—and people have lots of dreams. It’s certainly possible that if King were alive in 2021, he’d be looking at the world saying, “Nope, not exactly my dream.” But I bet the elections of Obama, Warnock and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are more than he could have dreamed of in 1968. I bet if he were alive today he’d have more dreams. That’s all the fight against structural racism is, really; a series of dreams and the work to bring as many of them to fruition as possible.
I believe King knew that—that every generation of Black folks would have its own mountaintop to reach—and that’s why I celebrate him.