April 4, 1968

Martin Luther King Day was designated a federal holiday by former President Ronald Reagan, out of all people. The same Reagan who was responsible for the disappearance of public mental health services and a rapid increase of nonviolent drug offenses leading to incarceration with his expansion of the war on drugs.

Why would a man like Ronald Reagan, who has an impressive track record of legislating a gradual end of the Black community, finally sign into law a document making MLK Day a national holiday?

I want to say it’s because nonviolence is not Black, that Malcolm X had it right the first time. I want to say it’s because a national holiday in the name of him would help distract the public from the facts of Dr. King’s murder. What I’ve decided, however, is that like all federal holidays, it’s just a holiday, which means I have time to write.

I often wonder what the state of Blackness would be without the civil rights movement of the 1960s, without the proliferation of nonviolence as a resistance tactic. What if we had begun to take up arms, and defend ourselves from state-sanctioned genocide? What if the Black Panther movement caught on fire like Popeye’s chicken sandwich? (kidding) What if there was only Malcolm X and his like, and not Martin Luther King, Jr. and his like?

We all know who Martin Luther King, Jr. was because he is one of the few Black people whose legacy has served whiteness well. His narrative hijacked and twisted into its place in scripted history which threatens to erase what really happened not only to King, but to the Civil Rights movement as a whole. To this day, one of the most infuriating things I know about what it means to be Black is to be Black is to be historian, in charge of filtering propaganda from around the necks of our most prominent figures so that their stories might actually be heard and retained.

Martin Luther King wasn’t a threat because of the “I have a Dream” speech. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a threat because he had a history of being a thinker – from Morehouse, Crozer Theological seminary, Boston University and beyond. He borrowed knowledge from those three corners, and decidedly embarked on his journey to influence Civil Rights for Blacks across the country using nonviolence as Ghandi did in India.

He founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and as President, coordinated civil rights throughout its area of influence. But, I know that he had to have believed in the legitimacy of the State – he pushed for Black voting rights, he took actions following Supreme Court rulings, and he acted within established organizations, including the SCLC and the Montgomery Improvement Association (which protested Rosa Parks’ arrest). He accepted assistance from all who would come to his aid, including former President John F. Kennedy when he was arrested during an October 1960 protest initiated by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His release from jail helped JFK narrowly defeat Nixon in the election that year, and later on, Kennedy authorized the wire taps and bugs that preceded MLK’s assassination.

Until his murder, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was predictably stretched thin across the militant students protesting across the Nation, and the more conservative Black Christian civil rights leaders who disapproved of the students’ actions. Students wanted him to be one thing, whites another, Labor movements another, and older Blacks yet another. This is the legacy that I remember on this day: a legacy of singular leadership attempting to solve the complex, collective, and complicated question of Black liberation — a strategy doomed to fail.

We often lament “woke” culture today. Its sensitive, monochromatic nature again seeking to solve complex problems using a calculator programmed with only two results: approved or disapproved, continued or cancelled. We wonder why this perspective seems marred in destinationless outrage and reductive narratives. Even more ironically, most of us still fall on either side of one coin – do we abide and judge ourselves when mistakes are made, or do we loudly disavow the culture as a whole? Are we Woke, or Contrarian? Are we Positive, or Toxic?

I, for one, hate dualities.

I’m a Black woman with a Black mother descended from African slaves, and a white father descended from the French. Mulattos find our bodies and the actions borne of those bodies to be convenient battlefields for the state of race, whether we acknowledge it or not. I’ve met many who slip blissfully into the colorblindness employed by their parents and caregivers to keep the peace through their upbringing. I’ve met others, like me, who seemed to have gone in the complete opposite direction – towards the front lines, loudly cultural and often overpresent.

I often wonder what Black leaders like King would advise me to do. Would they tell me to keep doing what I’m doing: Work, and live, while occasionally writing out my ideas for the occasional reader to occasionally read, or something else? Would they assuage the guilt I feel for being unable to speak to the full breadth of anti-Black racial violence? Would they provide the key to vision in a clouded world? Or would they confuse me even further with grand notions of singular leadership being the missing link to organized Black liberation like how many felt during President Obama’s two terms?

If the legacy of Dr. King has taught me anything, it is that singular leadership does more for the endurance of white supremacy than anything else. He, and his family, became convenient targets for assassination, and the narrative of his life a convenient place to edit history and make it palatable to school children and others living blissfully unaware of what’s at stake in our democracy. The continuance of anti-Blackness leaks blood into every battle for living rights: the daily murders of Black transwomen, the hyperexclusion of Black people with disabilities, the targeted character assassinations of Black politicians, the nonexistence of a labor movement inclusionary of Black workers’ issues, and many more.

Dr. King was assassinated by the United States government on April 4, 1968. How amazing that we still haven’t figured out that the mountaintop can only be reached once we as a nation admit that we have been walking around with Black blood on our hands, in our wallets, smeared on our houses, infused in our thoughts.

Next year, we will honor this third Monday in January again, and the blood will still be there, because we’ve come too far to turn back now. We’re too distracted, too sick, too disillusioned, too busy, too tired for visions of the future. Many of us spend our time unintentionally because we’re “not into politics” (read: I don’t care about you, myself, or anyone else). And still some of us spend our time wishing things were different, knowing a little about a lot and not a lot about what should matter, because there’s always so much going on and we often forget how to breathe.

Maybe that was the mission all along – not to kill, but to suffocate the embers of a fire that started so many others.

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