Guest writer and activist, Olivia Rosane, share her views on the complexity of activism and Martin Luther King's legacy in today’s world.
Martin Luther King Day is the only federal holiday in the United States that honors someone specifically for activism, for working collectively with others to make society more just for all of its members. It’s strange if you think about it. For all that democracies (or representative Republics, to get pedantic) pat themselves on the back for facilitating peaceful change, they don’t spend a lot of time applauding the citizens who actually work to make that change happen.
During his lifetime, Martin Luther King Jr. was spied on by the FBI and ultimately killed for daring to try and make his dream a reality. As this informative article by Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou points out, in the 1960s, he was never rated more than 45 percent favorably by national Gallup polls. It’s only in death that he’s been sanctified, polling at 94 percent in 2011.
But that might only be because now, unable to speak for himself, he is considered safe. Sekou mentions how both liberal mayor Kasim Reed and conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly evoked King’s name to claim that Black Lives Matter protesters had gone too far in blocking freeways during demonstrations, despite the fact that King is famous for a march that blocked the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
Even President Donald Trump felt comfortable praising King one day after referring to Haiti, El Salvador, and some African nations as shilthole countries. But if the Trump era has taught us anything, it’s that the dream King fought for is far from won. Studies have shown that racial resentment motivated Trump voters more than economic insecurity. America will have to confront the racism of its past and present if it wants to understand how Trump rose to power and replace his toxic tweeting with a healthier national conversation.
Anyone who has directly experienced discrimination due to race, gender, class, or sexuality doesn’t need to be told that those prejudices are alive and well, of course. For those with the privilege to live without this daily knowledge, the best thing to do is to look to groups who are fighting for justice now, like The Movement For Black Lives, and actively listen to their insights and demands.
In his 1963 letter from Birmingham Jail, King wrote, ‘For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never."’ For me, the best way to honor King’s legacy is to look and listen for anyone crying, ‘Wait,’ and take to the streets alongside whomever they are trying to slow down.
Olivia Rosane is a New Yorker currently living and working in London. Her work has appeared in Real Life Magazine, The New Inquiry, Yes! Magazine, and the Dissent blog. Follow her at @orosane.