Untaming the Memory of Martin Luther King Jr.

by Despina Lalaki

“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism”
— Speech to SCLC Board, March 30, 1967.

The movement that emerged in the United States in the wake of the 2013 killing of Trayvon Martin has been inspiring new struggles around the world against white supremacy and racial capitalism. In that sense it is a movement that encapsulates Martin Luther King’s message and continues the centuries-long struggle of black, brown and indigenous people for justice and equality.

Martin Luther King Jr., the black liberation leader and Baptist minister once in the FBI list as the most dangerous enemy of the state, entered our school textbooks in his Sunday suit and tie with a doctorate degree from Boston University as the lone hero of a movement meant to be largely forgotten. Removed from the defiant aesthetics of the Black Panthers or the separatist politics of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King has been reduced to his nonviolence, a philosophy for which he faced the wrath of both the conservative and liberal establishment when he started advocating it with regard to American foreign politics and Vietnam. Remembered for his self-efficacy, strong morals and character along with his pacifist approach for the achievement of social justice and equality, in the most abstract terms possible, he has been given a position in the American republic’s pantheon of heroes, a tokenistic gesture forced by history.

We remember by way of forgetting. By commemorating Dr. King for his charisma and individual perseverance the collective mobilization and organizational feats behind the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, the Birmingham campaign and the March on Washington in 1963, or the Selma voting rights movement in 1965 are largely obscured. The emergent image fits that of the liberal individual striving to remedy racial inequality, an image most skillfully crafted by media moguls such as Oprah or political figures like Michelle Obama in her recent book Becoming. In the process, the movement itself, the violence against it, its victories and the unfulfilled Dream which millions of workers, teachers, farmers, students, servants, nurses and others dreamt was erased from public memory.

It is the most recent Black Lives Matter movement that comes to remind us through direct grass roots action, horizontal organization and women’s active participation what the Dream was all about; to restructure American society in its entirety. The movement has been underlining the connections between police brutality, state violence and the prison industrial complex and a capitalist system which from its inception has been enabled by racial divisions and racism. Riots—the language of the unheard, as Dr. King once put it—in the American streets and the streets of the world stress the impossibility of racial equality without economic justice and the hypocrisy of the peaceful empire built on militarism at home and abroad.

Despina Lalaki is a historical sociologist and she teaches at City University of New York–CUNY.