The following piece is an excerpt from Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s keynote address at Duke University’s Dr. Martin Luther King Commemoration on Jan. 16, 2022. The piece reflects the author’s views alone. It has been lightly edited for clarity. The full event can be found here.
The King holiday is more than a time for reflection. It’s really a time for provocation. So, I always like to say that that is the spirit within which I offer my comments — as a provocation to think more deeply about the issues that confront us as a society, but also what we do in response to them.
In 1983, after years of lobbying by civil rights advocates and Coretta Scott King, Ronald Reagan — the sitting president but a political opponent of King during his lifetime — agreed to sign legislation turning King’s birthday into a national holiday. At the time of King’s murder in 1968, Reagan had made callous and racist statements that described King’s death as “a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order and people started choosing which laws they’d break.” Right-wing reactionaries had often reduced the Southern civil rights strategy of civil disobedience to simple lawlessness or the struggles in the North to violating their norms of law and order.
Reagan ended his remarks in 1968 about King by denigrating the ideal of equality as outside the boundaries of the American dream, saying: “The American dream that we have nursed so long is not that every man be level with every other man but that every man may be free to become whatever God intended.” So it was a moment of triumph as old segregationists and their enablers, men like Ronald Reagan who had opposed King as a leader of the civil rights movement, were frustrated by the national recognition of King as a celebrated American. But it was also a moment of tragedy, as the formal canonization of King allowed his complicated politics to be defanged and defouled, twisted into hollow pleas for peace, justice, equality, and color blindness. That was the trade-off. King could only be a national hero if he was stranded in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, in search of a world where his children would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, as he said in his “I Have a Dream” speech — entombed in a casket of idolatry and political impotence.
The elevation of the King holiday had become possible, even as Republicans wielded political control of Washington, because it could be used to diffuse allegations of racism against the relatively newly-minted Reagan administration. Reagan had garnered some high-profile Black support when he ran for president in 1980. Black leaders had become exasperated with the stalled agenda of Democrat Jimmy Carter. For example, Ralph Abernathy, the former lieutenant of Martin Luther King in the Southern Christian Leadership Council, shockingly backed Reagan, reasoning: “The Democratic Party in Washington is not going to understand that Black people are a part of America until we let them know that we do have an alternative.”
But with Reagan’s first budget, the animus animating the entirety of his political career shone through. His first budget in 1981 knocked more than 400,000 families off welfare rolls, while reducing the benefits of 258,000 families. Nearly 1 million families were kicked off food stamps and more than 1 million had their benefits reduced. Two years into Reagan’s first term, Black unemployment had risen to 21 percent by 1983, and it would go no lower than 10 percent for the rest of the decade. The 1982 poverty rate of 14 percent was the highest since 1965, at the start of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty when it was 17 percent. For African-Americans, the bottom was falling out as poverty consumed an astounding 30 percent of the Black population. And this, of course, was before the onset of Reagan’s War on Drugs, which accelerated the U.S. into an era of what has been called mass incarceration.
The dull legacy of King and the deadening repetition of “I Have a Dream” was used as a weapon by the right to present their political agenda as colorblind, as they dismissed Black suffering as lapsed personal responsibility, cultural deficiency, or the warped values of Black families. The problem with how we remember King is not just the inaccuracy or the distortion of his politics, but it is also how those distortions are used to pursue or justify regressive policies that King never would have supported and most certainly would have organized protests against.
King, who once described the United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” while also calling for a radical distribution of wealth in the name of equality, would support teaching Critical Race Theory, acknowledging slavery as central to the political, social, and economic development of the United States, and would be in the streets decrying continued attacks on the right to vote and rampant police abuse and attacks on Black communities.
The distortion of King’s legacy is not only because of the antics of the right, though. Liberals have been just as invested in presenting a distorted version of King as a more palatable version of Black politics, compared to the militancy, anger, and destruction that overwhelmed the Black movement in the late 1960s. On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in August 2013, then-President Barack Obama crystallized this historical rendering when he said: “And then if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination.”
“That,” Obama continued, “is how progress stalled. That is how hope was diverted. It’s how our country remains divided.” This perception of riots as senseless and criminal, or in contrast to the nonviolent movement that is seen as heroic, has cemented the notion of King as their essential opposite, with almost no recognition of the transformation of his own politics from the March on Washington in 1963 to his emphasis on mass direct action, civil disobedience, anti-imperialism, and anti-capitalism at the end of his life.
King’s distorted legacy is also used to rewrite the history of the civil rights movement, turning it into a story of patriotism that is intended to affirm the essential progressive trajectory of American history. In this way, the civil rights movement is remembered as triumph over tragedy, good overcoming evil — instead of as a movement that exposed the entirety of the United States as a deeply racist and anti-Black country. The movement exposed that racism was not some peculiar Southern malignancy, but also raised questions about the quality of Black equality in the North, when looking at the ways that liberals allowed for rampant housing and job discrimination, second-class education, and stood by passively in the face of repeated police assault on Black communities.
The rise of King and the power of the civil rights movement do not confirm progress as the intrinsic motor propelling American history forward. Instead, King’s political trajectory and the essentially radical nature of the civil rights movement confirm that in the United States, progress is not guaranteed, justice is not part of its natural life cycle. Both are only ever the product of enduring social movements, labor movements, and struggle. A Black president and today the largest number of Black elected officials ever to serve in the United States Congress is representative of change. But when in Philadelphia and in the Bronx section of New York in the last two weeks, two home fires — stoked by poverty and neglect, induced by landlord greed — killed 39 Black people, mostly women and children, it points to shocking continuity with the past.
Indeed, the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement, the ongoing fight for the unencumbered right to vote, the fight for affordable and safe housing, the fight for living wages, the fight for healthcare and beyond reveal an alarming continuity of the past, not an arc of history bending towards progress. In an essay published nearly a year after his death, King concluded that the Black movement had exposed these kinds of issues as deeply embedded in American institutions. He wrote in 1968: “In these trying circumstances, the Black revolution is more than a struggle for the rights of negroes, it is forcing America to face all of its interrelated flaws — racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”
You can watch the rest of Professor Taylor’s speech here.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a professor of African American studies at Princeton University. She has recently been awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the “Genius Grant.”