The Whitewashing of King's Legacy: His Silenced Message For Reparations Still Rings True Today
MLK day passed the other day, so it is important that we be reminded how watered-down King's message has become in recent decades. His famous 'I Have a Dream' speech is most readily brought up along with his call for integration and social justice. As honorable and justified as those goals were, they don't represent the summation of his entire legacy. Martin Luther King Jr. called for more than just social equality which many people harp on today due to the success of this particular goal. If we are to holistically look at King's legacy, however, we'd see that there was one major thing he advocated for that was improperly pursued by politicians during his time. Now, decades after his death, America still has yet to come close to acknowledging the other side of King's dream.
The same year of his assassination in 1968, King called out the United States for racism in land rights and land ownership which white immigrants were able to capitalize off of while at the same time, black people were shut out. King said, “at the very same time America refused to give to Negro any land, through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest. Which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided County agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low- interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
As was pointed out in The Nation last year, African-Americans have lost untold acres of land since the turn of the 19th century. Much of that land ended up in the hands of the white immigrants Martin Luther King spoke of. A major aspect of King's message was economic. He was on record talking about how it didn't cost America any money to desegregate the lunch counter or provide the right to vote, but that there were issues that could not be solved without America spending money and providing a radical redistribution of wealth for black society. This was effectively King's call for reparations and to this day, it remains one of his most radical and arguably controversial agendas.
However, it's controversial for all the wrong reasons. It's controversial because it requires the U.S. government to actually feel the burden of the suffering that has been inflicted on the African-American community. Which is something that historically, the U.S. has been resistant to. It would require giving black Americans the leg up that was never offered to them after slavery, the Civil War, and after Jim Crow. America has lobbed a stick of dynamite into the heart of the black community and has told us to fix our own injuries. Black people have been told that it's not the responsibility of America to provide recovery, that there is no money for reparations. Yet apparently, there's always money for war and there are billions of dollars to give away to those in America who are already rich.
We're not dealing with a lack of money issue, we're dealing with an institutionalized lack of empathy issue. Mixed with cultural hubris and a convenient historical amnesia that allows many in American society to forget how things got the way they are today.
King didn't just call for a radical redistribution of economic power, but political power as well. He understood that social equality could only go but so far. That social equality without economic and political power redistribution was akin to trying to stand on two wooden beams with one leg missing. That is an unpopular notion today as many have adopted the belief that economic and political power for black people is a threat to their own place in American society. So, there's more emphasis today on only focusing on issues that are “universally appealing.” Calls to correct problems that face the black community, even on the Left, have been labeled by some as “divisive.”
It is also important to point out King's vocal criticism of state violence and police brutality. This too gets lost in the historical retellings of King's Dream. It's extremely important to center this truth in a time when Black Lives Matter is smeared and derided by the same conservatives who will quote Martin Luther King in very duplicitous fashion when his holiday comes around.
King's legacy cannot be allowed to be whitewashed and used by politicians with a political agenda. They will echo King's words, and act in favor of everything he fought against. It has become far too easy to quote King without accepting his agenda. Too easy to be selective about his message because deep down inside, many to this day, don't want King's full agenda implemented. So they acknowledge the goals that were achieved and ignore those that weren't because for some, piecemeal progress is better than radical, transformative change. If that means a little racism is allowed to persist, then so be it. To them, be happy that Jim Crow is gone and stop asking for repayment for what was taken from you.