“We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
These words by Martin Luther King were shared in a conversation with Harry Belafonte near the end of his life. When people write about MLK at this time of his life, they note how agitated, frustrated and truly tired he was. He carried himself like a man who knew his time was coming close to an end. This is also something that is apparent when you watch David Oyelowo’s performance as King in Selma: he has carried the weight of oppression and has seen the horrific nature of man too many times.
It is 2015 and King’s life has taken on a new meaning 47 years after his death; a meaning full of symbolism and hope but scrubbed of complexity and its original context. The death of a famous human being is the ultimate social makeover, and the complicated person that once existed becomes a springboard with which we project our own feelings and attitudes. To call this a whitewashing, while true, only covers one aspect of the issue; our heroes become a reflection of ourselves when their time has passed.
The biggest takeaway seems to be that we are a nation that enjoys to lie to ourselves in an effort to be comfortable. We hide the skeletons in our closets and deny that there were any skeletons to begin with–deny it to the point that we begin to believe our own lies. It is evident that we choose to remember Martin Luther King as the ultimate advocate of peace and harmony. What’s more blatant is that King is not talked about in this way as an example of what America should be but of what Black Americans should be. It is important that we remember to be “peaceful” and “turn the other cheek”, yet King’s instructions about the White responsibility in the crusade for equality has fallen on deaf ears. Even the liberal White person has used King as a sort of “we are the world” symbol of unity, forgetting the militancy that was necessary for King to make even the most minuscule progress for Black Americans.
King stood for the restructuring of institutions because he knew that there was no true equality to be found in this country without the total obstruction of everything built to prevent that equality from ever happening in the first place. This part tends to be conveniently ignored; people don’t want things to change–even if they don’t like the thing–change is unknown and frightening, and when there is fear, people will cling to the comforts of the old guard. The idea of “world peace” that we use a man like King to propagate is a shallow ideal of happy faces being polite to one another, as though the absence of mean spirits is enough to overcome a dark past and current period still full of disenfranchisement.
King learned this the hard way, when he came to various people (various clergyman) looking for solidarity and finding closed doors. For all the talk of how King was nonviolent, he was a man who was repeatedly met with violence and he never ran from it. The people who took part in those marches, protests, sit-ins and freedom rides knew there was violence waiting on them and threw their bodies into the fire not out of passivity or a blind love of their enemy, but out of a need to be an example to the nation of its own homegrown terrorism and the direction of its moral compass.
There is no real progress to be made in this country if it cannot make peace with what it has done to get to this point. Until then, we are a country looking for answers to every question except the right ones. I know this because of people like Martin Luther King. In an interview with Alex Haley shortly before his death, King stated “Few white people, even today, will face the clear fact that the very future and destiny of this country are tied up in what answer will be given to the Negro. And that answer must be given soon.” King was not a fool and was more aware of what America is than many of us. If he were alive today, I believe he’d have burrowed further into this militant attitude about the country, or perhaps I’m thinking about him in the context of myself. In death people become whoever you want them to be.
Israel Daramola is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker living in Washington, D.C. A native of Tallahassee, FL, Israel graduated from Florida State University with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Israel is at AAOP to bring his perspective on pop culture and life to a new audience so that the two can grow together.