By Preston Mitchum
Today marks the 36th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a federal holiday celebrated every third Monday of January. It’s often a day where we recommit ourselves to acts of service and revisit the legacy of Dr. King, a civil rights activist and member of Alpha Phi Alpha, Fraternity, Inc., who protested white supremacy and institutional violence at the state and federal levels, fought against poverty and economic injustice, and was a fierce leader in assuring voting rights for marginalized Americans. MLK Day always brings me hope, and this year is no different, particularly at a time when our political climate is hostile and our government is non-functioning. But though this day brings me incredible joy, it’s also one that makes me uncomfortable because of how regularly I’m forced to confront this country’s continual whitewashing of Dr. King’s legacy.
If American history had the final say, Dr. King would be known for only one speech about a man and his dream of nonviolent integration. Every year, historians paint an inaccurate picture of Dr. King’s legacy by celebrating “I Have a Dream” as his most pivotal speech, a moment when racism was purportedly vanquished. Perhaps it was his defining moment, but certainly for an entirely different reason than the idea of racial unity with which it has become synonymous.
Make no mistake: There are many reasons to love this speech, given at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in Washington, D.C. It was made at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement — orchestrated by queer civil rights activist Bayard Rustin — and could appear to describe racism as a bygone era while glorifying the promise of a multiracial, multicultural future; a false representation of children playing together in America’s post-racial, afterschool sandbox.
But “I Have a Dream” was a searing indictment of white supremacy in the United States, and still is. Dr. King was speaking for "the Negro ... [who] finds himself in exile on his own land,” critiquing the unjust social, political, and economic conditions that left Black people "still languished in the corner of American society."
And in The Nation’s 2013 article “The Misremembering of ‘I Have a Dream,’” journalist Gary Younge investigates the whitewashing of Dr. King’s most beloved speech and why Americans undermine Dr. King’s legacy instead of honoring his scathing critiques against capitalism, imperialism, racism, and agencies like the Department of Justice.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington.
“The speech is profoundly and willfully misunderstood,” Vincent Harding, an activist and historian who penned Dr. King’s anti-Vietnam War Riverside Church speech, told Younge. “People take the parts that require the least inquiry, the least change, the least work. Our country has chosen what they consider to be the easier way to work with King. They are aware that something very powerful was connected to him, and he was connected to it. But they are not ready to really take on the kind of issues he was raising even there.”
This refusal to grapple with the full scope of Dr. King’s legacy manifests itself in two ways. First, it forces us to pretend that American whites revered Dr. King and his work, despite the fact that he was subjected to numerous death threats and bombings throughout his life; wiretapped and followed by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for over a decade; and subsequently assassinated by the racist James Earl Ray in 1968. According to a 1968 Harris poll (conducted the same year of his assassination), 75 percent of Americans did not approve of Dr. King, and his politics had fallen out of favor even among his friends and supporters. Second, it also causes us to forget Dr. King’s contributions beyond “I Have a Dream” — for example, his speech “Give Us the Ballot,” which plainly described the violent prejudice and voting rights inequality that plagued Black Americans.
In 1957, while speaking at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, Dr. King reminded us that Black peoples’ continued disenfranchisement at the ballot box was undemocratic, unpatriotic, and an intentional betrayal by their country. He therefore demanded voting rights for all Americans from President Eisenhower and the members of Congress. Dr. King noted:
“Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.
Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.”
It is eerie how important how Dr. King’s words still are. Today, voter suppression tactics and the remnants of Jim Crow laws prevent many Black people and formerly incarcerated people from voting. Before Florida ended its 150-year-old ban and passed Amendment 4 in November 2018, 1 million Floridians did not have the constitutional right to vote. What’s more, in 12 states, felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for certain crimes, or require a governor’s pardon in order for voting rights to be restored. Oftentimes, they may face an additional waiting period after the completion of their sentence before voting rights can be restored.
Dr. King understood the importance of equity in voting and how Black people could shape elections — and he’s been proven correct. According to the Wall Street Journal, the blue wave of the 2018 midterm elections that elected at least 40 Democrats to Congress (with historic wins for women of color across the country) was bolstered by overwhelming support from Black voters: 92 percent of Black women and 86 percent of Black men voted for Democratic candidates. Sixty-two years later, Dr. King’s words matter.
While progress is being made to restore voters’ rights in places like Virginia and Florida, there are still millions of voters who cannot vote — whether because of prior felony convictions or the color of their skin. If voting is indeed a right, we must allow for full voter restoration and dismantle systems that deny people, especially marginalized people, access to the ballot box.
Dr. King was more than the dream we misremember today. He was an activist, a freedom fighter, our Fraternity brother, and an ardent critic of the American government — and his work remains unfinished. On this day, we not only must ensure Dr. King’s legacy isn’t whitewashed; we must continue to reclaim his history.
Preston Mitchum is a writer, activist, and legal/policy analyst. He is on the Board of Directors of the Collective Action for Safe Spaces and resides in Washington, DC. Find out more at prestonmitchum.com.