It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the annual commemoration of the life and legacy of the late Civil Rights leader. Unfortunately, it’s also time for some annual foolishness, when some people, out of ignorance or in a blatant attempt to misrepresent King’s message, weaponize his words against the very people he dedicated his life to elevating.

It’s ironic that trying to combat the misuse of the image of a champion of nonviolence can leave one feeling … not nonviolent.

“I yell at the TV a lot,” said Rev. Cynthia Belt, pastor of Harwood Park United Methodist Church in Elkridge. Belt has studied and long admired King’s work as “a radical activist who loved both Black people and his country enough to hold that country accountable.”

That description might not jibe with the modern popular vision of King as some sort of universally lauded, wise mystic figure who spouted simplistic messages of peace fit for T-shirts and commemorative mugs. Be real. Safe, cuddly people aren’t the subjects of relentless FBI investigations and ongoing death threats that were, sadly, violently realized.

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“Please don’t act like everyone loved my father. He was assassinated,” his daughter, King Center for Nonviolent Social Change director Bernice A. King, wrote on Twitter (now X) in 2021. “A 1967 poll reflected that he was one of the most hated men in America.”

Imagine having to spend your time not only upholding the legacy of the daddy you lost as a child, but having to refute so much nonsense about him. But she and her family have long combated efforts to distill King’s many writings and 2,500 public addresses into one line from his “I Have A Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington.

Many are familiar with his wish that one day, “Little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” This is beautiful and idealistic, but many miss what King believed was necessary to realize that bucolic scene: for this country to make good on the freedom it promised everyone, having “defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

There’s nothing benign or wishy-washy about that. Yet, Bernice King wrote that “many who quote him now and evoke him to deter justice today would likely hate, and may already hate, the authentic King.” It’s hard to quantify hate, but the late icon’s name sure is in the mouth of a lot of people who seem to oppose everything he stood for. They include Sen. Ted Cruz, who said that King would have been “ashamed” of the NAACP’s 2023 travel warning for Florida, or Rep. Chip Roy, who evoked MLK in the ascent of Rep. Byron Donalds, who, yes, is Black, but whose voting record doesn’t support that legacy.

And then there’s Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who tweeted that Critical Race Theory, the study of how race is manifested in the country’s political and legal systems, “goes against everything Martin Luther King taught us — to not judge others by the color of their skin.” Bernice King responded that McCarthy should “study my father’s teachings & words well beyond the last lines of ‘I Have A Dream.’”

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In the more than half-century since King’s death, “we’ve reduced it [him] to a person with a dream, and completely disregarded his legitimate criticism of our nation,” Belt said. “We teach our kids that he had a dream, but we don’t teach them all of the components of that dream. For many people, the Civil Rights movement begins and ends with MLK. If you can reduce that movement to one man, when that man is gone, so is the movement.”

This is more than just time sanding off the edges of his message, Belt said. It’s actually a deliberate attempt to keep King’s impact wrapped in hazy nostalgia and separate it from “the continuity” of the moment — a relic out of time, disconnected to CRT or Black Lives Matter so as to make those actions seem radical. But King’s tactics, too, were radical. Marches and lunch counter sit-ins were not violent, but they were, Belt said, “confrontational” and sure to bring a violently racist response so that the world could see.

“We’re going to hear ‘I have a dream’ all weekend, but we won’t hear the content of the ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail,’ directed at Christians, mostly white, who were telling him that ‘That’s not how you do things. We have to wait,’” she said.

Well, we’re tired of waiting. And we aren’t fooled by this latest round of obfuscation to portray modern attempts at the equity King died to achieve as “woke nonsense” that insults his vision rather than seeks to fulfill it. Belt said she encourages people to look deeper into his work to understand the context beyond “soundbites on Twitter.”

When I spoke to Belt a few days ago, she was planning what to preach about him in Sunday’s sermon and had decided to focus on “something along the lines that, for him, love was not like warm and fuzzy, like ‘I love you, you love me,’” she said. “As one of my mentors used to say, justice is the face that love wears in public.”

And it’s my dream that one day, my little Black boy wakes up in a world where he can join hands with little kids of every race, without having to sacrifice his right to that justice. Somebody put that on a T-shirt.

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop... 

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