As Martin Luther King Day comes around once more, I am reminded of the amazing work that he put in as a civil rights leader.
His sermons of peaceful resistance and nonviolence have made an insurmountable impact on my life and every black person who sets foot on American soil.
Due to his work and many other activists like him, I get to enjoy many civil liberties that have always been my right but were stripped away because of the color of my skin.
On this day, however, I am also reminded of the hypocrisy that now plagues Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name by the very same white people who murdered him.
The summer of 2013, I sat with my best friend’s family and watched the trial of George Zimmerman.
I cried when the jury of six women found him innocent when he so clearly murdered Trayvon Martin. As the riots ensued and I first heard the words “Black Lives Matter,” I had never felt so empowered. All my life I’d heard and read of the protests by my ancestors and this was the first time I felt that I could be just as great as them. That my words could cause an impact as large as Martin Luther King, that my simple actions could bring change just like that of Rosa Parks, and that my anger and passion for my community would force white people to see me.
To see the injustice that I faced every day.
To not tell me that they “don’t see color,” but to see my blackness and the centuries of pain under every layer of my melanin.
They didn’t see anything though, and as I first saw the words, “what would Martin Luther King do?” across my Facebook timeline, every ounce of empowerment left my body. I had never felt so chastised for simply loving myself and wanting equality.
And with each publicized death of a black man or woman, each hashtag and utter of the words “I can’t breathe” and “Black Lives Matter,” I heard the echo of a white voice screaming over mine, “what would Martin Luther King do?”
It was those very words that brought my resentment of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Anytime that phrase was mentioned I would go on a tirade, mentioning how without Black radicalism and the Black Power Movement his work wouldn’t have had such a large impact. I reminded people how the dichotomy between riots and peaceful protests are what brought change.
We needed both sides of the movement to get white people to listen and change how they treated us. They were terrified of the likes of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers so they hid behind Martin’s coattails. They urged us to follow in his footsteps, to be obedient, to lay down our weapons, and then they picked up those same weapons to kill him. I used all my knowledge to try to convince people that Martin Luther King, Jr. would be proud of my activism, that he wasn’t perfect, that our movement was justified.
I have now realized that white people have appropriated the legacy of Martin Luther King.
They have tainted the very name that should push me to shout louder.
They hated his very existence when he was alive but now dare to use his name to denounce the very people he fought for.
As I watch my brothers and sisters in protest as they are tear gassed, murdered, arrested, and blackballed for simply kneeling, an otherwise respectful gesture, I remember MLK’s words: “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true…We’re going to stand up amid anything they can muster up, letting the world know that we are determined to be free!”
I no longer will defend my actions to the insult that is “what would Martin Luther King do?” because I know that he would be proud of the work that I do. That just like me, he would scream “Black Lives Matter!” at the top of his lungs, he would drag racists on Twitter, and make weekly calls to his representatives.
I know with each rally I choose to attend and with each white person of power I choose to fight that I could be killed, but Martin reminds me that the only death is silence.