You’d think black people would be allowed ownership of the civil rights struggle – but meaning is fluid in the Trump era. Don’t fall for it
Each year, on the third Monday in January, US public schools close to observe the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. At some point during the preceding week, most schoolchildren attend a Martin Luther King Jr Day assembly, a pregnant pause between classes designed to remind students of the black trauma and black greatness in America’s DNA, the gravity of King’s sacrifice, and, most pressingly, the persistent relevance of his mission. The purpose is not just to honour, but to remember. A good MLK Day assembly ought to emphasise that our work is not done, particularly this year, just days before America’s first black president hands the nation over to an oligarch endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan who “won” his office largely through voter suppression in black and Latino communities.
My stepdaughter’s high school held theirs last week. “We just had an MLK assembly,” she texted me as she filed out of the auditorium, “and it was the biggest steaming pile of shit.” I held out the phone to show my husband. She doesn’t swear in front of us. The featured speaker, she said, was a white man – a classmate’s grandfather – who supposedly saw King deliver his famous I Have a Dream speech. According to my kid, he told the assembled students that Black Lives Matter is “too exclusive”, and “all lives matter” was more in line with King’s message. The room exploded into cheers. My daughter, a mixed-race girl in a mostly white school, refused to clap. (Later, some white friends would make fun of her for it: sure, the speech was “weird”, but why was she so upset?) The white man concluded his remarks by declaring that it would have been King’s dream for the Seattle Seahawks to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in the then-upcoming National Football League playoff game. The assembled crowd nearly collapsed with delight. (The Seahawks lost.)
She says that a white teacher took the mic and added something along the lines of: “People say our school is not very diverse, but that’s not true. We have one of the most diverse schools I’ve ever seen!” To illustrate her point, the white teacher played a video of, in my daughter’s words, “a bunch of white kids talking about how different they were because they could, like, cross their eyes weird”. There were reportedly three black kids in the “diversity” video, only two with speaking parts. No black people spoke live at the assembly. “Really?” my husband joked. “Black people don’t even get to keep Martin Luther King? I was sure we had that one nailed down.”
A suburban public high school is hardly a litmus test for all of humanity or a bastion of sophisticated pageantry, but one would expect administrators to at least try to centre black people’s voices on the one day our nation has set aside for them. Their failure to even graze that generously low bar reveals something much more insidious than overt, explicit racism: certain white Americans believe that you can have a discussion about race that is post-racial; that black people do not necessarily need to be centred in the struggle for black people’s equality.
Rightwing lawmakers don’t need to outright replace MLK Day with KKK Day (although, fun fact: in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi, King shares his holiday with Confederate general Robert E Lee). It’s much simpler and more effective to hollow out and rebrand King’s words to mean whatever you want them to mean. Get used to Trumpism that looks like liberal boilerplate. Certain predators figured out years ago that it’s far more efficient to be a parasite. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” can sound a lot like, “Reverse racism is real,” in the mouth of a disingenuous propagandist. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” can easily read as, “Be nice to white people and never criticise them,” to fragile ideologues.
This deliberate erosion of meaning is how civil-rights hero and US congressman John Lewis – who knew and worked with King – came to be publicly scolded by comedian Rob Schneider (who, to his credit, has worked as both a European and a domestic gigolo). Affronted by Lewis’s stated opinion that Trump’s presidency is not “legitimate”, Schneider birthed this remarkable tweet: “Rep. Lewis. You are a great person. But King didn’t give in to his anger or his hurt. That is how he accomplished & won Civil Rights.”
We don’t have to imagine how King might have felt about such a lazy perversion of his ideas, not to mention the self-evident delusion that civil rights have been “won”. He wrote the definitive evisceration in 1963’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”