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WE'RE NOT DONE MARCHING: THOUGHTS ON MLK DAY AND 2021

In an unbelievably short time, we will officially exit the Trump era. And having that evil lunatic out of the White House is a great first step toward restoring something like normal life in this weary land.

But one thing that isn’t going anywhere—a thing that Trump’s wretched tenure laid bare—is white supremacist belief. After almost 250 years we are still bedeviled by its horrors. Just as MLK spoke with such beautiful gravity of the racial violence wracking the country, we still see Black people gunned down in their cars, in their homes, in the streets, by the police. The Black Lives Matter movement brought the biggest and most energetic civil-rights protests in half a century to the streets of America, but we still can’t seem to fix this murderous trend.

This no doubt comes as a puzzlement to people brought up with the well-scrubbed fiction that Dr. King was always viewed as an icon, and that his loving speeches parted the roiling sea of racism and liberated us from ourselves. You would be forgiven for imagining that the changes he helped effect were welcomed by the authorities. After all, exactly one year ago, the FBI’s Twitter feed shared a photo of a King quote that was etched into the marble outside its offices. The tweet’s author enjoined Bureau personnel to partake of the Reverend’s moral vision.*

But let’s acknowledge the bitter truth: Long before he was the target of an assassin’s bullet, the man was the target of a ruthless FBI campaign to—in director J. Edgar Hoover’s words—“destroy him.” The Feds described him publicly as a commie agitator. They surveilled his private life in search of enough salacious material to besmirch his reputation. (A new documentary digs into the disturbing details.)

This was in the days when the deep state was really the deep state, and King’s assault on the redoubts of segregation and white supremacy—along with his jeremiads against poverty and the Vietnam War—made its guardians supremely nervous.

Which is why we must make an effort not to file down the rough edges of the man’s legacy. While his message of love and peaceful coexistence is deeply moving and galvanizing, he was always clear that these desiderata were unreachable without dismantling the superstructure of hate that was the status quo.

Here in 2021, we have just witnessed the nightmare of a vengeful crowd toting Confederate flags and wearing Nazi slogans rampaging through the seat of our government, bent on mayhem. Most of all they wished to undo the reality that Trump, their white-supremacist superhero, was unseated by Black voters. The franchise that Dr. King and countless other activists and organizations helped defend is both endlessly potent and terribly vulnerable.

If we really want to honor his legacy, memes ain’t gonna do it. We need to rededicate ourselves to the practical defense of democracy for all. We need to confront police violence directly and with moral clarity. We need to do the work to understand how pervasive white supremacist ideology is, and to see how its toxicity poisons us all.

It can be discouraging, thinking about how much work needs to be done. But doing it makes us better.

 

 

*This year, tweets extolling MLK's legacy came from ICE (which has been an instrument of overtly racist and violent treatment of refugees) and First Lady Melania Trump, who... well, you know.

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