Even though the holiday created in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. is only technically one day, many people spend the whole latter half of January honoring his amazing legacy. Aside from the countless Instagram selfies posted with an MLK quote as the caption, many places hold a slew of events to commend the effect of his work on the world. The University of Michigan undeniably takes part in this practice. So as we leave behind the month that celebrated MLK and enter the one that rejoices in the work of other Black figures just like him, I have started to reflect on what exactly this truly inspirational man stood for.
During his lifetime, King spent his time advocating for the end of discrimination and racism against Black people as well as anti-segregation. Though this is by no means an exhaustive list, it captures the essence of what he cared about. When comparing his work to the current events that honor it, the main focus of the two don’t fully align. Many events across campus and across the country focus on the acceptance, open-mindedness and love needed to make integration work. However, a lot of these events seem to conveniently leave out the large parts of his efforts that went toward uplifting Black people specifically. This leaves me to wonder: Is MLK day being whitewashed? Are we celebrating the entirety of Martin Luther King’s work, or are we only acknowledging the parts of it that everyone is comfortable with? Let me explain further.
King didn’t spend his life fighting for the watered-down concept of togetherness that is often associated with his name today. He was largely about Black prosperity. Yes, King was for all people. Yes, he wanted people of all races to be treated based on their personal characteristics and not their social identities. But it is clear that he saw elevating Black people as an effective and important means to achieving the racial equality and equity that we still yearn for today. With his speeches and letters — take his Letter from Birmingham Jail and I Have a Dream Speech for example — he incorporated a mixture of encouragement and convincing. He encouraged Black people that the cause was worth the fight while convincing white people that Black people deserved American rights. Despite that, honoring King’s legacy by preaching respect and allyship towards the group he worked to liberate seems to be an undiscovered concept. It seems that any time there is a cause or a person that stands up for the improved livelihood of Black people, it/they will only be accepted if the message is repackaged. Black people have to be taken off center stage in order for the masses to find it necessary to care about what is being said.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with non-Black people being inspired by King. I have no problem with King’s words being used to further efforts that don’t revolve around Black people. And I definitely don’t believe that his name should be disassociated with the general idea of love and unity. However, when it comes to a day or event specifically dedicated to acknowledging King’s works and passions, Black people need to have a leading role in the narrative.
Like I said before, King was for all people. But he was especially for his people. Don’t forget that.