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The Selective Appropriation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


It never fails.

Something happens in the United States that creates a cry for justice (TRIGGERS). Justice is delayed or denied and that breeds anger (EFFECTS). Without hope of resolution, now anger reaches a boiling point. The mix of emotions, helplessness, fear, fatigue, desperation and hopelessness lead to protests (REACTIONS). Provocateurs and agitators appear, disguised as allies, but their job is to add fuel to drive emotional protesters to riot and take the focus further away from the cause (DISTRACTIONS). And it works.

Here's how the conversation evolves now:

George Floyd's death is horrible and that officer should be held accountable, BUT I was with the cause UNTIL the rioting started. What did Target and AutoZone stores have to do with this? It's counterproductive to THEIR cause. THEY need to resolve this peacefully.

And just like clockwork, the conversation is no longer about the trigger. The focus shifts to the reactions and because dealing with the real root cause (not just the trigger) is uncomfortable, the only thing left to do is to play the peace card - a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote.

Yep, a good ol' MLK peace quote should get them in line. You see, selectively appropriating Martin Luther King quotes about peace and non-violence is used as a tool to remind black people that violent protests are not for us. That's reserved for the gun-toting, Second Amendment entitlement ilk who are free to take up arms and storm state capitol buildings and walk the streets with assault rifles unchecked. King quotes are rarely used to remind all of humanity to be civil to one another. I didn't see a Martin Luther King quote when the riots happened in Charlottesville. I've never seen a quote used to remind "troubled" white men who may be plotting to shoot up schools and churches that non-violence is the way. Yet anytime black people rise up, the peace card plays like a broken record.

Here's the tragedy in that. First of all, it diminishes the focus that not only needs to be on the trigger, but furthermore the ROOT CAUSE. George Floyd's horrific, public, dehumanizing death at the hands of people who have a moral obligation and oath to protect and serve was the trigger, but it didn't start with him being murdered in broad daylight. People want to pretend to be outraged by the reaction to the murder so that they don't have to examine the root cause that made this situation triggering across the nation.

Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, and Philando Castile are just a few recent examples of the many reasons that this murder and delayed arrests triggered outrage. If you don't know these stories, go read about them, but there are many more that go back decades. The only difference between now and then is technology. We have been telling the stories of injustice and mistreatment for hundreds of years, but had been met with resistance and disbelief until video evidence and social media began to broadcast it worldwide. Even with evidence, too often, justice is still denied. We are still told trial after trial, acquittal after acquittal that our black bodies riddled with bullet holes is the actual justice because blackness itself warrants justified fear. With the backdrop of strange fruit, an MLK quote calling for peace and non-violence but failure to participate in tearing down the systems that protect injustice is empty.

Selectively appropriating Martin Luther King's words as a control mechanism, is a disgrace to his legacy and shows the true ignorance, whether willful or accidental, of what he was about. Just a simple Google search gives the impression that promoting non-violence and peaceful protests was the entire purpose of his existence. That's because those are the only parts of MLK that America wants you to focus on. The parts that make you feel good. The inspirational words. The non-threatening actions. But when you turn the attention to his chastisement of America's systemic racism and acknowledgement that "a riot is the language of the unheard," people are overwhelmed with disbelief that he said those things and even go as far as making accusations that his words are being used out of context.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s eloquent words were never meant to be used negate the very reason for the speeches. He used his platform to address injustice, brutality, inequality, racism, and economic disenfranchisement - the root causes of violent responses. He never allowed the triggers, reactions, and distractions to detract from the severity of the thing that caused it in the first place. He was an outspoken critic of the government and its racist policies and inequitable practices. He called the nation to be better. Do better. Do something.

The violence we see today is the reaction, not the root cause. Rioting is taking place partly because there are agitators creating a distraction, but mostly because after years of prayer, peaceful protests, grassroots organizing, and civil disobedience and we still are faced with the same issues and silence is no longer loud enough. Is it right to burn buildings and destroy property? No. Shouldn't this be a time that we invoke the words of one of the nation's most effective change agents to stop the violence? Yes, it absolutely is. Let's go study what Dr. King really said about injustice so that you are provoking the people around you to change, and not just appropriating King's words to pacify me.

Change starts with YOU.

Do yourself a favor. The next time you are tempted to play the MLK peace card, for starters go read his "The Other America" speech given on March 14, 1968 at Grosse Pointe High School and then ask yourself if you are really interested in addressing and eradicating the root cause or if you just want THEM to stop disturbing YOUR peace.

"Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1968


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