In schools across the United States, few Black names grace the pages of curricula as frequently and with more energy than that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. From memorizing his most popular speeches to learning almost exclusively about his “non-violent” tactics, as well as hearing all about his alleged love for racial integration, the Southern activist, writer, and preacher is folded into a choir of respectability and tiresome misconception.
And while a certain docile, priestly Martin Luther King Jr. is trained into the minds of most Americans from a young age in classrooms, this is not the only space such a Martin exists: hanging on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC., in barbershops and across university campuses, with statues and sculptures in public parks, on the names of popular streets, even in courthouses and government buildings, a ghost of Martin remains memorialized into a peaceful godliness.
His words are typically cherrypicked — snatched from their context, their intellectual depth, and their usually-searing societal indictments — and turned to a certain kind of motivational quote. In just a few decades since his sinister assassination, King has become a symbol of equality, integration, and lawfulness; all things which he did not get to witness during his tenure on earth, and none of us have yet to witness either.
When someone becomes larger than life and is violently forced out of life itself, how can one cut through the nonsense to intimate the most accurate legacy? How do we collectively move beyond the intentional distortions of a beautifully dangerous man’s politics and into a space of powerful reclamation? When liberals and conservatives equally throw his name around like it’s worth little, like he’s the next word that means everything and nothing at all, how do we remind people that names, legacies, and words mean things?