Enabling Reinvention

MLK and Incarceration

By Mariama Sidibe

In American history we speak of Martin Luther King as the man who paved the way for a colorblind society. In history books we don’t discuss the radical views held by MLK, nor do we extensively talk about the ways in which he was labeled a criminal for his visions of racial equality. Hiding these aspects of his life does all of us a great disservice for it maintains the myth that Martin Luther King fit all of the mainstream standards of respectability.

In his days, Martin Luther King was seen as an enemy of the state. The U.S. government labeled him as a marxist because of his advocacy for racial equality and union rights. He became a threat to national security in the eyes of the FBI who tried to replace him with someone less “subversive.” This legacy is one that we are not told about because as a nation we are uncomfortable with the brutal history of state repression. We choose to ignore the criminalization attached to black and brown bodies, whether they are fighting for racial justice through civil disobedience or kneeling.

The true legacy of MLK as an enemy of the state is an important one for marginalized communities who often find themselves to be the victims of state violence. A lack of resources in low-income communities has resulted in a concentration in crime, and a lack of access to the American dream unless you can buy it. These communities are advocating for their rights through protests that are labeled as advocating for special rights and in turn label them as disruptors of public peace. This narrative is what allows for impunity in the acts of state violence. After all, the public is more likely to put faith into those who are meant to protect them then an individual who they see as threatening their way of life. Even more dangerous to these communities is the way in which MLK’s filtered legacy has been weaponized against modern-day activists.

Every year when MLK day rolls around people repost quotes of his that they find to convey as peaceful- quotes that suggest “everyone should just get along” and equal rights for all people. In the context of mainstream U.S. history, MLK is seen as the figure who ended racism in America. Year round, the legacy of Reverend King is used to condemn black protesters- who are constantly told that their form of protest is not the “right” way. Unfortunately, history shows us that there has never been a “right” way for black people to protest. The same man that is now heralded as the the “post-racial society” advocate was once the man that the FBI saw as “the most dangerous man in America.” If we maintain the fallacy that MLK was beloved by all people, during his time and present day, then we rob young black people of a hero that they can relate with.

When we talk about MLK’s acts of civil disobedience in classrooms we fail to make parallels to current day. MLK was not the respecter of laws that were inherently discriminatory and we should follow his lead in our present day. Voter ID laws repress poor Americans who are disproportionately people of color, poor communities lack laws that grant them equity, and we have laws that lead to higher incarceration rates among black and brown people. Yet somehow the same people who are able to see why it was justified for MLK to protest segregation aren’t able to see how Black Lives Matter is justified in their anger of the death of young black men and women. The images of protesters being tear gassed in Ferguson for many recall images of hoses on protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. For young black people today, they are competing against an impossible standard of respectability. They are told to look up to someone like MLK yet not take action in the same ways that he did.

MLK and the activists he worked alongside with knew that they had to demand their rights at the cost of being seen as criminals. Words like criminal are meant to shame people for their actions, erase them of their humanhood. But I call on a change in the meaning of that word- for it has been weaponized to anyone who questions unjust laws. The way in which people become criminals in the U.S. may have changed, but I doubt that MLK envisioned a world in which we are still afraid to speak up in the face of injustice.

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