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MFP Editor Donna Ladd writes that many white Americans try to co-opt and water down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of facing and overcoming systemic racism. It's dishonest and counterproductive for the nation whitewash real history, she argues. Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

White Theft: The Audacity of Co-opting Dr. King

I grew up with people around me badmouthing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To hear white folk in east central Mississippi in the 1960s and 1970s tell it, he was the very root of all evil, and everything that was wrong in their lives was his damn fault. In fact, Dr. King had marched in my hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., in 1966 amid violent chaos when I was a kid—he even spoke near the law-enforcement murderers of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

Yes, Dr. King gave his life for the search for move love and less hate, but he was not only spreading a message of love, as so many white thieves of his legacy try to say today. His message was pure fire—and he was out to hold a mirror up to our nation about white Americans (not only Mississippians and southerners)—who supported using terror to maintain power over everyone else and to enjoy the fruits of that terrorism.

Throughout his life, Dr. King toiled and ultimately sacrificed his life in the fight to change power structures and systems established and enforced to keep white people on the top and Black people on the bottom. He wanted America to understand that enslaved people actually built this nation (after many of their owners figured out how to steal the land from Indigenous Americans and forcefully remove them from land they coveted).

None of this history is pretty or honorable, and Dr. King never tried to say it was or to cover up any of it. He wanted it taught to every person in this country and certainly wanted children to grow up having learned the lessons of the past. He knew that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

And he was blunt that he was not likely to live long enough to see that happen.

Remaking MLK Into Their Image

By the time a white man shot him at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Dr. King was more focused than ever on systemic racism and the links with poverty, as well as a harsh critic of both capitalism and the Vietnam War. He was putting together the Poor People’s Campaign with the goal of occupying Washington, D.C., to bring more attention to the racism-poverty connection.

Of course, I didn’t know all that until I was well into adulthood. I knew most white folks around me in Mississippi hated him, and I knew that he was a martyred hero against racism. Basically, like many Americans, I was fed the whitewashed version of Dr. King, which has worsened over the decades.

I was nearly 40 when I studied with Dr. Manning Marable at Columbia University and learned the larger and more accurate history of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and so many Black freedom fighters. I’ve also read his speeches; I know fully what Dr. King was about and what he supported. Just read his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop Speech” in Memphis. “Be true to what you say on paper,” he told Americans from Memphis shortly before he died.

Now, 54 years after Dr. King went to Memphis to support a labor strike by sanitary workers, we see so many arrogant efforts by white Americans to remake him into their preferred hero—even supposedly one who would tell us all now to forget all that sticky history and just get along despite the systemic inequities our history embedded into our nation’s DNA.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sick and offensive. Right here in Jackson, a public-policy institute led by a former Brexiteer from the U.K. actually used a photo of Dr. King and his words out of context in a report a year ago to push legislation against so-called “critical race theory” in schools. The report, in fact, argued the precise opposite of what the Black freedom hero actually said or wanted. They even twisted his call for “being judged by the content of their character” out of context to make absurd statements about Dr. King, like this one:

“Instead of celebrating the enormous achievements made since the Civil Rights Movement, critical race theory specifically rejects King’s color blind ideal and seeks to racialize every aspect of culture, sport, and public discourse.”

“Color-blind ideal”? That’s is what this institute—and its board sprinkled with prominent white Mississippians—think Dr. King meant by the need for white Americans to stop judging people by the color of their skin? Seriously? That’s some shoddy thinking. Or propaganda, as it were. And it can sure explain why this institute claiming Dr. King’s moral ground as their own apparently have nine white men and two white women on its board, eh?

Laying Down Life to Speak Truth to Power

As we consider Dr. King’s legacy this weekend, we need to study and consider the whole legacy. No serious person can argue that he would want this nation to banish teaching of our full race history from colleges, schools and homes. No serious person would say that he would want us to just be proud of how far we’ve come and not examine how far we’ve got to go until that arc bends toward actual justice and inequity is no longer baked into our systems. No serious person thinks Dr. King would not want us to interrogate how and why inequity became baked into our systems and how to fix those systems so they don’t keep replicating themselves.

And no serious person would argue that Dr. King would not want the systemic history of slavery, massacres and lynchings that helped end Reconstruction and install Jim Crow; the story of little Ruby Bridges or our Medgar Evers or Lamar Smith down in Brookhaven; the story of ongoing attacks on public education since integration—or the full story of his real dreams—taught to every American on this road to eradicating the baked-in legacies of racial suppression and white supremacy.

I get it. Complaining that teaching real race history is somehow “Marxism”—which no serious person would do, either—is bringing back the stunts and propaganda the rich and powerful white people used successfully to scare white folks back in the 1950s and 1960s, and even inspire violence against Dr. King and Mr. Evers.

The rewriting of history is sick politics. But it is a stunt that all serious people of any party who are actually working to not judge people by their skin color—and who create inclusive tables of thought that people of all hues want to be around—must reject loudly and definitively.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life to speak truth to power. We owe it to him to continue doing just that.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Journalism and Education Group, the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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