PHOTO CREDIT: By Birmingham AL police dept – Original publication: circulated to news media in April 1963Immediate source: http://photos.nola.com/tpphotos/2013/04/martin_luther_king_mugshot_apr.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63213413
Dear Dr. King: The Truth That Killed You Is Our Strength
By TaRessa Stovall
Dear Dr. King,
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of your assassination, I want to share a look at the racial dynamics of America today from where I stand.
I was 13 years old when you were murdered. It was life-changing for millions; my memoir about growing up racially mixed begins on that very day. I grew up Mixed race in the non-segregated but nonetheless racist Pacific Northwest where there weren’t formal anti-miscegenation or Jim Crow laws. All I knew of Jim Crow segregation is what I saw on the TV news. I was born of and surrounded by Black men who fled segregation by moving to the Pacific Northwest, marrying non-Black women and having kids before doing such a thing was legal nationwide. I understood the Black Power movement, which was much bolder and in-your-face than the Civil Rights movement, because that reflected the environment I knew, and responded to the dynamics that shaped my fledgling sense of racial self.
The generation that you led and influenced is in its elder years. Your birthday has been an official holiday since the mid-1980s—though not everyone acknowledges or celebrates it. We still don’t really know how to pay tribute.
Those of us who knew your brilliant and complex leadership first-hand are dismayed at how your image and words have been watered down, neutered and rendered nearly impotent, used to peddle your birthday, Black History Month, and a fantasy of idealized racial utopia still rooted in and in service to White Supremacy. Rather than recognizing the powerful metaphor of “I Have a Dream,” it’s pimped out as a literal warning against being “woke” enough to fight White Supremacy. And it’s increasingly backed by the legal power of the state.
There has been a lot of change in these 50 years, Dr. King, but not much sustainable systemic progress in the fight against racism.
We had a Black Biracial POTUS for eight years. The symbolism and optics of President Barack Obama and his family thrilled people of all races who wanted more and better. President Obama made some powerful changes in critical areas. The flip side: millions of White people and their allies of all races spent every second of that eight years unifying, strategizing and planning the government and policy dynamics for a racial counter-attack. They channeled their rage and acrimony into action. Today, they are back on top—and winning. The current administration is rolling back every progressive, pro-human policy they can find. There’s no longer any illusion that our elected “leaders” have any interest or investment in our well-being. Their response to the demographic “browning” of America is to Make America White Again, serving only the very wealthiest titans of power.
What about that race question? Your work and movement changed the laws of Jim Crow legalized and legislated racial segregation. Adjacent policy moves included the desegregation of public schools, the legalization of interracial marriage in all states, and the Voting Rights Act. But those hard-won victories have not yielded the results that we might have expected.
Today, public schools are as segregated as they were before Brown v. Board of Education. The voting rights of African Americans remain under attackWhile rates of interracial marriage have grown and more Mixed-race babies are born, this hasn’t lessened systemic and institutional racism. Even when children of different races sit next to, learn alongside, play with, befriend, and even grow up to love and marry each other, it has not made this nation any less racist.
Black people—including children—are routinely slaughtered by increasingly militarized police forces around the country, with few consequences. Black communities are made equally deadly with guns, drugs and the culture of violence that assures self-destruction in every possible form. Black people in the USA have no illusions that police will “serve and protect” us.
In response to this constant carnage, the Black Lives Matter movement was born. It is led by brilliant, courageous young people—mostly women who identify as LGBTQ. They learned from your assassination and others to build a decentralized, leaderless movement that is more inclusive on the gender front. Just think: your movement might not have had to suppress the brilliant presence of Bayard Rustin if we’d been more evolved in this area back in the day.
While you gave your life in the struggle to demolish institutional racism, Jim Crow hasn’t gone away. It’s just morphed into a cradle-to-prison pipeline fueled by the bodies of Black, Brown and poor people of all genders—especially Black men, who are born expecting to be imprisoned or die young. It’s reinvented as educational, economic and employment policies that keep most of us from realizing our potential and breaking the constraints of systemic racism. Racist hate crimes are on the rise, with blatantly hostile language and laws steadily gaining traction.
This nation’s culture of violence breeds domestic terrorists (mostly White males) who kill students of all races in schools, Black worshippers in religious sanctuaries, and many more. Millions of Americans continue to be more committed to gun ownership than human life—often including that of their own children. Laws for owning and using guns are more lenient in several places—but they’re only for White people. Even legally owning and registering a gun by all the rules does not entitle Black gun owners to any protections under the law.
We are in the Information Age–with more content flying at us than ever before. Our mainstream media is controlled by corporate and political interests that spew propaganda to keep groups in conflict, and we’ve lost the distinction between “news” and opinion. Social media—owned and controlled by wealthy, elitist Whites–enables us to connect and communicate in amazing ways. Now we determine what is newsworthy, with the traditional media following us to see what’s of interest. At the same time, there is little Black-owned-and-controlled media any more, so even in this information-rich environment, we remain at a disadvantage.
Dr. King, I’m sorry to report that we’re no closer to ending the racism that you and so many fought, bled and died for. White Supremacy has us on cruise control, fueling the same divisions that kept slaves from unifying and fighting back: we are divided by gender, sexism and misogynoir; by colorism and the illusions of class differences; by age and generation. Those internal, intra-racial tensions are one danger. Externally, the COINTELPRO movement that targeted and attacked you and your counterparts is still here, with the FBI targeting what they call “Black identity extremists.”
One downside of you having been reinvented as the safe, race-friendly icon of race “relations” in the USA, we often ignore the complex layers of your intellect and activism.
As I reside in your hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, I often think of your conversation with your actor/activist colleague Harry Belafonte, who shared in an essay: “Midway through the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. realized that the struggle for integration would ultimately become a struggle for economic rights. I remember the last time we were together, at my home, shortly before he was murdered. He seemed quite agitated and preoccupied, and I asked him what the problem was. ‘I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply,” he said. “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.’”
You were right, Dr. King. Integration was an important strategic tactic in the fight for justice and equality. But it has not given us true, lasting power. And it has not helped us to win the war.
In contrast with your fiery speeches— as powerful and uplifting today as decades ago—I think of how you were sometimes laid low by the blatant hostile toxicity of racism. Such reports describe you as “depressed,” even classifying it as mental illness. I understand that you were laid low by empathy, committed caring and trauma fatigue. By the ugly truth of racism. These days, with nonstop news about the many ways that racism, sexism, patriarchy and anti-human capitalism collude to keep us down, millions of us experience this condition.
A recent article in TIME.com by Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, describes how you were so disturbed at seeing Black students attacked by White students and adults for trying to integrate a school that you wouldn’t get out of bed. And how, near the end of your life, you “saw that white resentment … was embedded in the very psyche of white America.”
As you told us in 1967, “the vast majority of white Americans are racists, either consciously or unconsciously.””
Fifty years after you were brutally taken from us, that singular, definitive fact remains the same.
Sometimes the fight against racism and White Supremacy feels as exhaustingly futile as a Sisyphean climb up a glass mountain. Yet despite the P.T.S.S., the trauma fatigue, despondency, and heartbreaking, soul-crushing, mind-boggling attacks on every part of our beings, we continue to rise. In honor of our individual and collective Ancestors, we rise. In tribute to you and your leadership, we rise. And as we rise, we thank you for lighting the way.