This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was different than those in recent memory. The visibility of police and vigilante murders of black Americans changed the way we engaged in MLK Day this year, and possibly for years to come. Using the hashtag #ReclaimMLK, Ferguson Action planned and encouraged protests around the country from January 15-19 as a way to reclaim the true intention of Dr. King’s work. As Danielle Belton wrote in The Root, “Somewhere between his assassination and today began an MLK-neutering campaign meant to turn the famed agitator’s holiday into a national Day of Service, a generic mishmash of good feelings that contorts King’s social-justice legacy into a blissful Hallmark card of post-racial nothingness.”
Protesters around the country staged die-ins, marches, and blocked highways, shopping outlets, and even brunches. A long list of hashtags tracked these actions including #ReclaimMLK, #MLKalsoSaid,#BlackLivesMatter, #ShutItDown, and #ICantBreathe.
This refocusing of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has been a long time coming. For years, Dr. King has been presented as an icon for the nebulous feel-good ideas of peace and unity or used as a commercial ploy, ignoring the radical nature of the Civil Rights Movement and what King’s beliefs and actions really meant. Even in his nonviolence, King was so threatening that the FBI zealously monitored him and other civil rights leaders.
Fast forward to today, when media figures and others who oppose many of the things Dr. King stood for- workers’ rights, reproductive justice, criticism of capitalism– praise him as a national hero while co-opting his true message. Each year, we can expect to hear pundits and politicians justify their beliefs by claiming that, if he were alive today, Dr. King would agree.
Rosa Parks is another of the most well-known civil rights leaders and rightly so, although not for the reasons most of us were taught in school. Like King, Parks’ image has been distorted to fit popular culture. As a black woman, Rosa Parks has been put through an additional layer of sanitizing to make her acceptable to racist and sexist power structures. As Danielle McGuire writes in her book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, Rosa Parks wasn’t just a quiet old woman who refused to get out of a whites-only seat on the bus because her feet were tired from a long day of work. She was “a militant race woman, a sharp detective, and an anti-rape activist long before she became the patron saint of the bus boycott.”
Her decision to resist segregation wasn’t a result of tired feet, but of a lifelong defiance and ingrained belief in the right to fair treatment. Her story was co-opted not only by white power structures, but also by a patriarchy that requires a civil rights heroine to take on a saintly image to be effective.
As we see in the erasure of Dr. King’s radicalism, Rosa Parks’ fierce lifelong activism, Maya Angelou’s unapologetic past as a sex worker, and so many others, we cannot count on others to tell our stories. This generation is capitalizing on the ubiquity of social media to demand that our history is neither revised nor repeated.
(Originally published on Hashtag Feminism)