“Well this country is a hypocrite. They try and make you think they set you free by calling you a second class citizen. No, you’re nothing but a 20th century slave”Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet, 1964
Once again, it is Martin Luther King Day, first observed as a US federal holiday in 1986. In 1979, the first attempt to sign the day into law failed. In 1983 a mass public campaign, soundtracked by Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday anthem, persuaded policymakers to change their minds, and it became a federal holiday. Finally, in the year 2000, 17 years later, all 50 states decided to honor the holiday. Both Arizona’s governor and the electorate rejected the notion of a paid holiday in King’s honor, leading to a campaign led by Corretta Scott King to boycott the state. Phoenix, the capital city of Arizona, lost its chance to host the Superbowl in 1993 due to the controversy surrounding the state’s refusal. After losing an anticipated $200 million in income, voters learned their lesson and enshrined the holiday into law.
Every state now marks the day, but Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida combine it with a day to commemorate Robert E Lee, a confederate general who fought for the South’s right to enslave Africans and is the opposite of what King stood for. Like most civil rights gains, even MLK day still has to be fought for.
MLK Day has now become a fixture of the calendar, with annual celebrations connected to celebrating not just the man but the movement. Yet while you kick back, settle in for the NBA celebrations and sing the African American national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” we need to consider the real legacy of the day.
King is in curious company, one of only three men with US national holidays in their honor. The other two men are George “Slave Owner” Washington and Christopher “Genocide” Columbus. If public holidays tell us about the soul of the nation, then you could argue it is progress that civil rights now sits alongside slavery and genocide… but only if you spent MLK day chugging down the Kool-Aid of the American dream. The nation embraced MLK day because his legacy is not a challenge to the system but has actually helped to further embed racism into society.
Before the howls of disapproval get too loud, it’s important to acknowledge that it didn’t have to be this way. King was killed because he pushed the civil rights movement to demand transformative change in the economy. His Poor People’s Campaign, spearheaded with a plan for civil disobedience against economic inequality, combined with his condemnation of the Vietnam War, dubbed him the “radical King.” It would be wrong to get too carried away, but it is fair to consider King’s legacy had he not been assassinated. He was not popular at the time, and, likely, the nation would never have embraced him.
But we have to assess the legacy of King and the movement by what had been, not what might have been. The civil rights movement was one of the most successful in history, largely achieving the stated goals of dismantling formal segregation and gaining voting rights for African Americans. Before the movement, African Americans were almost completely locked out of mainstream success. The changes it brought in allowed limited access to the system. Yet by the time he died, King told activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte (as written in his memoir “My Song”) that he feared that the civil rights movement was “integrating into a burning house.”
The truth is that the house may not be burning, but the civil rights gains were only successful in opening the doors to the plantation house. A lucky few of us have “made it,” but the majority are locked out, catching hell in the field.
Malcolm warned us that the best we could get for appealing to the system was “second class citizenship.” After witnessing George Floyd have the life squeezed out of him, how can we delude ourselves into thinking we have the status of fully human, let alone citizens? Racism is as much a blight on the lives of Black people as it was in the sixties, and with the advent of mass incarceration, you could argue it is worse.
I used to roll my eyes at the poll that found 69% of African Americans thought that the election of Obama was the fulfillment of King’s dream. He may have wanted much more systemic change. However, the reality is that the Black president was the logical endpoint of the civil rights movement. Access to the system allowed for a class of Black politicians that we could put faith in to bring about change. This was just an illusion; even a Black president represented only a symbol and not the hopes of the Black population.
We have achieved only what Malcolm called “token integration,” with the visible examples of “success” acting as a mirage of progress. The civil rights movement ultimately led us down the dead-end road we find ourselves at the end of. Until we realize that racism is the system and that no amount of access or reform will ever make us free, then we will keep waking up in the American nightmare.
MLK day is celebrated because the legacy that we live with has conditioned us further into the system of racism. So if you are fortunate to have one, then enjoy the day off, but understand that there is nothing to celebrate. Instead, we should use the day as a reminder that the struggle continues and must take a radically different direction if liberation is our goal.