Opinion

Opinion: Reclaiming MLK Day

In April of 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr spoke in profound grief about the way his position on the Vietnam War was interrogated even by some of his closest supporters.

“I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path,” he said. “At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: ‘Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?’ ‘Why are you joining the voices of dissent?’”

He continued: “‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say. ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,’ they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”

Around the United States today, leaders across the political spectrum will invoke the name of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not to reaffirm the vision he stood at the helm of, but to affirm their own twisted, more convenient versions of it. 

From Joe Biden to Donald Trump, from the most liberal zoom classrooms to the most conservative Bible studies, Dr. King’s words will be recited and retold in ways that are stripped of their context and ravaged of their power.

Where Donald Trump mobilized military forces while waving a Bible to assault organizers, Joe Biden panders to white supremacists by failing to follow through on policies to protect Black voters full and equal access to the ballot box or life-saving measures in response to COVID-19. 

Both wear spiritual Blackface in the blasphemous invocation of Black liberation thought. 

Dr. King’s nonviolent, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, pro-people movement has been plundered by the white political establishment. 

Dr. King’s messages about class solidarity, vehemently opposing the War in Vietnam and his most radical racial dreams are rarely taught in schools.

But Dr. King’s nonviolent, anticapitalist legacy, conceived by Black women like Ella Baker and queer folks like Bayard Rustin, endures and retains its capacity to instruct and guide us all to a better world.  

Since the assassination of Michael Brown Jr. at the hands of the state in August 2014, St. Louis has been an epicenter of the modern civil rights movement. West Florissant was our Edmund Pettus. Police traded horses for tanks, billy clubs for guns as big as their bodies. 

As a militarized force trotted towards us, we had all the power of our lineage as our weapons. While Black communities organized for basic scraps of equity from the withholders of justice, we became subjects of national scrutiny and recipients of vile and violent vitriol, death threats and other cruel manifestations of the worst that humans are capable of.

St. Louis is a city of survivors. We fight hard to carry on the legacy of our forebears, embodying Dr. King’s ethic of nonviolent resistance in everything from educational programs to electoral organizing. 

We organized to elect the first Black woman mayor of St. Louis; to close jails; defund and abolish the police; use restorative justice to heal families and communities; and forge a road toward repair for community violence. 

We worked to release thousands of people held in jail simply because they couldn’t afford their bail and practically ended cash bail, to close the infamous Medium Security Institution jail  known as the Workhouse.

We are modeling a solidarity economy, and living our dream of an abolitionist future until our freedom is realized. 

We have built new systems and structures to support and sustain a community longing to do more than merely survive. We have built a movement that has indelibly inspired a global campaign to end state violence and mass incarceration, liberate the disinherited and build a society wherein all can live in peace, rest and safety with community-based co-governance.

At Freedom Community Center, we practice radical forgiveness by facilitating restorative justice circles for serious harm and violence. Eighty percent of survivors of harm in St. Louis who were surveyed by FCC said they would opt into the organization’s program instead of the legal system, acknowledging that the legal system creates more harm than safety.

All this while making our chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police” prophetic beacons of hope that only haunt those intent on upholding a system intended to destroy Black lives.

Faith for Justice has launched the Fatal State Violence Response Program with ArchCity Defenders, a strategic initiative to support families of people who were killed by police or who died in state custody. 

We offer social services like legal and media support, financial support, political education and counseling with a three fold focus in our non-violent, community based and survivor-focused response to ending state sanctioned killings: Emergency crisis response, healing justice and direct action for policy advocacy. 

We, together, fight every day to fulfill our ancestors’ wildest dreams — more than dreams of labor and organizing, struggle and strife, we fight for dreams of liberation. 

We are the manifestation of their longing for an end to the machinations of white supremacy and capitalism that attempt to extract from Black people our freedom — and from the oppressed around the world their hope for the same. The dream is one of shared abundance, of justice, of ease. It’s a dream of rest and nurturance for Black women, safety and joy for Black transgender folks, and a world where Black children can be free to be children.

We dream like Mahalia Jackson did when she told Dr. King, “tell them about the dream, Martin!” inspiring him to resolutely say, with generations of dreamers across Black liberation history, “I have a dream.”

The dream of freedom for Black folks, for Palestine, for Puerto Rico and all the world. Freedom dreams. Dreams where access to healthcare is not a luxury but a right. Dreams of a world where queerness and poverty are not criminalized or persecuted. Dreams of more than just the common good, but of collective power and liberation.

Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech is certainly his most abused and misused work. Lauded as the pinnacle of the Civil Rights Movement, as if the dream Dr. King spoke of was achieved in the very oration of his words. 

But to quote the good doctor himself, “life is a continual story of shattered dreams.” 

We find hope because we must. We fight on because we must. We dream, despite shattered dreams, because we must.

So while many will quote the dream and congratulate themselves on their annual performance of “I’m not racist, I quoted Dr. King,” we are the dream. Mahalia’s dream. Martin’s dream. Marsha P. Johnson’s dream. Pauli Murray’s dream. The dream of Black women and queer folks across history. 

And like midwives, we call forth a renewed dream, rooted in nonviolence, in hopes of a better future, knowing that in due time, liberation will be born.

The Rev. Michelle Higgins
Mike Milton

This commentary by the Rev. Michelle Higgins and Mike Milton is published from The Missouri Independent via a Creative Commons license. Higgins is the founder and executive director of Faith for Justice and senior pastor at St. John’s UCC-The Beloved Community in St. Louis. Milton is the founder and executive director of the Freedom Community Center in St. Louis.

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