“You don’t have to agree with everything someone says to agree with anything someone says” is wise advice. (Thanks, [De]constructionists.)
However, when we are reading someone who is challenging to our assumptions and world view, or with whom we will disagree, it is also important to not make their work do something they never intended it to do. In our efforts to glean from even those we don’t see eye to eye with, we must not strip that person of their voice and message.
I’ve seen this in few instances as clearly as I see it every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
We pause as a society and look back at the life and legacy of one of the many leaders within the Civil Rights Movement. A scholar, pastor, activist and prophet, it is good to remember Dr. King, but to what end?
My social media feeds were filled today with quotes and memes heralding bits of inspiration garnered from Dr. King’s prolific writings. In our zeal to remember, to reconcile, to “achieve” Dr. King’s dream, have we neglected the hard work that needs to be done? Have we been so proud as to believe that hundreds of years of oppression and enslavement were undone in a few decades? I suggest that we’re further away from a realization of Dr. King’s dream than we care to admit.
In the last few years, since Trayvon Martin was murdered, race relations in the U.S. have continually been thrust into the forefront of our national consciousness. As people have taken to the streets, and taken knees, a curious thing has happened: (white) people who disagree with the protests have taken to using Dr. King quotes to reprimand protestors.
People march in the streets, and someone says – “I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Players kneel on the sidelines, and someone says – “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Multitudes band together under the rallying cry of “RESIST” as policies are proposed to ban refugees, defame and deport immigrants, oppress the poor, and (again) go against our word to Indigenous people, and someone says – “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.”
Have we, in our attempts to remember and honor this man, completely forgotten that his work for justice and equality got him killed? Have we forgotten that Dr. King’s actions were not so unlike those of Colin Kaepernick, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi?
It’s true, “you don’t have to agree with everything someone says to agree with anything someone says.” It is also disingenuous to overlay your own agenda on to the work of someone else. In this instance, it is disingenuous for (white) people, uncomfortable with protests and police brutality to use Dr. King’s quotes to silence or dismiss the very activities King himself engaged in, and arguably would be engaging in today.
So, about that Dr. King quote you posted today…
You don’t get to have “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Without also “Isn’t it true that we have often taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes? Isn’t it true that we have often in our democracy trampled over individuals and races with the iron feet of oppression? Isn’t it true that through our Western powers we have perpetuated colonialism and imperialism?”
(both quotes from Dr. King’s “Loving your Enemies” sermon)
You don’t get to have: “I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Without also: “as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society.”
You don’t get to have: “Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Without also: “‘Your whole structure must be changed.’ A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will “thingify” them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.”
(all quotes from “Where Do We Go From Here?”)
You don’t get to have: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Without also: “One of the dangers we must always watch in our nation and in the system under which we live is known as capitalism…the danger point is that we will become so involved in the profit-making and profit-getting aspects of capitalism that we will forget certain ends of life.”
(both quotes from “Keep Moving from this Mountain” at Spelman College.)
You don’t get to have: “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
Without also: “don’t despair if you are condemned and persecuted for righteousness’ sake Whenever you take a stand for truth and justice, you are liable to scorn Often you will be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical. Sometimes it might mean going to jail.”
(both quotes from “The Most Durable Power.”)
You don’t get to have: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Without also: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
(both quotes from “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”)
In other words, it is disingenuous and dishonors the life and legacy of Dr. King when we quote what we like, what encourages us and what upholds the illusion of peace, while neglecting the poignant and biting critiques he also issued, many of which still hold every bit as true today.
So go ahead, post your quote or meme, celebrate and remember, but do so honestly.
**Featured image on this post by WonderWoman0731