Martin Luther King, Jr., Sarah Palin, and White Privilege

Martin Luther King, Jr. at a 1964 press conference (via wikimedia commons)
Martin Luther King, Jr. at a 1964 press conference (via wikimedia commons)

Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day when the federal government shuts down and our nation celebrates Dr. King’s contributions and legacy. This holiday usually sparks some commentary pressing people to recall that King was not a warm and fuzzy character who encouraged others to dream about racial equality. He was a radical, and his commitment to nonviolence was a key part of that radicalism. Like many other civil rights leaders, King was under intense surveillance by the FBI, a fact that seems even more salient given the US’s current NSA surveillance controversy.

The struggle to remember King’s radicalism is particularly salient in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela. NPR used the occasion to discuss what happens when media outlets agree to agree, calling up the examples of King and Mandela. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an excellent piece over at The Atlantic on Mandela’s rejection of nonviolence that also cites comments on the topic by King and Malcolm X, a reminder that while King embraced nonviolence, the story was more complex than Kumbaya.

While it may seem tiresome to some audiences to continually speak to King’s radicalism and fight back against the sanitization (whitewashing?) of his image, the cost of not speaking out is higher. Just yesterday, former Alaskan governor and reality TV star Sarah Palin used King’s words to accuse President Obama of “playing the race card.” Palin’s remarks immediately drew fire from most circles, including her supporters. While most comments have focused on contextualizing her statements and arguing about whether Obama has played “the race card,” fewer looked at her misappropriation of King’s words and legacy.

The reason I bring up Palin’s remark is that it is a perfect example of the impact of white privilege on society and how we talk about the past. I can basically guarantee that whatever Palin was thinking when she posted that comment, it had almost nothing to do with Dr. King and his work and everything to do with her whitewashed ideas about him. When we don’t talk about the parts of King’s legacy, and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, that make us uncomfortable, that remind us that he was a human being instead of a saint, we lose the significance of his contribution. He becomes the comfort food version of history; empty calories that feel good without providing any nourishment.

If we can’t talk about Dr. King’s complicated legacy, how can we expect to create a society where we can talk openly about white privilege and other aspects of institutionalized racism? One of the more recent pieces I’ve seen discussing the topic (cited here on Buzzfeed) evidently drew so much ire that the author took down the tumblr where the comic originally appeared. Pieces surface all over the place, from Peggy McIntosh’s classic “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to articles written in dude-speak to posts on “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.” These ideas are difficult to discuss even in communities where respecting different perspectives is supposedly the ideal; just look at the #solidarityisforwhitewomen controversy that erupted in the name of finding a path to more intersectional feminism.

March on Washington flyer (via crmvet.org)
March on Washington flyer (via crmvet.org)

I was attracted to public history because it seemed like a way to make history useful and relevant. As I have worked on civil rights history, and more importantly talked with people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, I have to come to believe that as a public historian, I have an obligation to facilitate a discussion about social justice, especially when the injustices of the past connect with the injustices of the present. The way forward, from my perspective, is finding ways to talk about complicated topics that are respectful both of those engaged in the conversations and the facts themselves.

So let’s start talking about Dr. King’s radicalism. Let’s talk about Mandela’s rejection of nonviolence. And in the meantime, white people, before we say anything at all, we need to ask ourselves, Yo, Is This Racist?

*This post was originally developed for another project, and as such is cross-posted elsewhere.