Ijeoma Oluo on the love — and anger — of MLK

Pop culture's watered-down version of MLK diminishes the man behind the myth

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is pictured at an integration rally in Montgomery, Alabama, May 21, 1961. Credit: AP Photo/Horace Cort/File

This is a transcript of a speech delivered Friday, Jan. 12, at the 45th Annual Community Celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., sponsored by Seattle Colleges, at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Seattle.

Like many black children, I was raised with tales of the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Much of that narrative — at home, in school, in television and in film — centered around Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence in his fight for racial equality.

He was a peaceful man, people said, no matter what, he never struck back. As I became older, my image of the great Dr. King became more nuanced. I started to see him as more than a man with a dream, as more than a man who didn’t strike back. But for many, and for much of the broader narrative of our culture, Dr. King has remained little more than a gentle man with a dream.

Dr. King wouldn’t have been that demanding, people say. MLK wouldn’t have been so angry. He was a nonviolent man, remember?

And as this past year has had us debating whether or not, in 2017 and 2018, it is OK to punch Nazis, and whether or not Black Lives Matter marches are terrorist acts, the idea of Martin Luther King as the paragon of peaceful protest is invoked more than ever.

But what was nonviolence, really, to Dr. King? Was that all he was? Was peace his only goal?

At a time when those marching to protest the extrajudicial killings of black men, women and children are called thugs; at a time when swastikas are being spray-painted on local synagogues and schools; at a time when families are being torn apart to satisfy the desires of a xenophobic voting base; at a time when armies of anonymous strangers can find you online and tell you that they hope you die without any recourse, while discussing the issue of white privilege will have you banned from social media, can we can look at the work of Dr. King and look at the world we live in today, and ask: What is violence in 2018? And in this new world, what does nonviolence actually look like? 

MLK would be ashamed of you. When I hear these words from someone trying to silence my fight for racial justice and equality, it feels like a body blow. This is not the pain of shame or regret. This is the pain of something that I deeply love — and I deeply love the life and legacy of Dr. King — being abused.

Author Ijeoma Oluo
Author Ijeoma Oluo

Dr. King was a brilliant leader, a loving husband and father, a man of great faith. But he was, first and foremost, a human being, man with very human thoughts and feelings, successes and failures. I also heard he was really funny. 

In his autobiography, he wrote of his early experiences with the violence of racism — both emotional and physical violence. He described many times the anger he felt at experiencing such inhumane treatment. That anger that motivated him to act, just as his father’s anger at watching his father before him suffer the injustices of racism, motivated him to leave sharecropping, finish his education and become a minister.

It was after the success of the Montgomery bus boycott that Dr. King came to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the deliberate practice of nonviolence. It was the success of Gandhi’s tactics that first drew him in, and he quickly found that the principles of nonviolent resistance also suited his morals and commitment to loving his neighbor. He became convinced that nonviolence was not only the most effective way to combat oppression, it was the only way to do so without becoming an oppressor in your own right in victory.

As Dr. King said, “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.”

But Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence was not a commitment to passivity. It was a commitment to direct confrontation with the violence of oppression. And Dr. King recognized that violence beyond the physical.

In responding to outcry over rioting of angry and frustrated black youth, Dr. King pushed back against the idea that riots were the violence that society needed to be outraged over. He said:

“Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison.”

While Dr. King was committed to a life and mission of nonviolence, this does not mean that everyone saw his actions as peaceful. And I think it is important to remember that while King and millions of other black people endured physical, financial and emotional abuse at the hands of white supremacy, it was his direct action to confront that oppression that was labeled too destructive, aggressive and even violent. So much so that he was labeled an “enemy of the state” by the FBI.

Sitting in a Birmingham jail, being kept in solitary confinement for leading peaceful resistance to racial segregation, Dr. King decided to respond to white preachers who had chastised him for such “untimely” and “extreme” actions. He said:

“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects, and does not grapple with underlying causes. I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.”

Throughout his work, Dr. King was blamed for “inciting” the violence that met him and fellow protesters in the streets. And as black people throughout the country joined his fight, it was the dissatisfaction of black Americans with the abuses against them that became the main problem for many white Americans.

It is said that even Robert Kennedy, in a moment of frustration over the rising protests of black Americans, exclaimed to his brother, then-President John F. Kennedy: “Negroes are now just antagonistic and mad and they're going to be mad at everything. You can't talk to them. My friends all say [even] the Negro maids and servants are getting antagonistic.”

And even now, in 2018, the complaint of Robert Kennedy sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Are not those of us marching for black lives also labeled as irrationally angry? Is not our anger over systemic poverty, job discrimination and lack of representation also viewed by many as the bigger threat to society than the abuse and oppression that we face?

What do we face?

Recently there has been rising concern in the medical and scientific community over an issue that has been of extreme concern to the black community for many years: the alarmingly high maternal death rate of black women. As doctors and scientists have looked at why black mothers are dying at three times the rate of white mothers, many have come to see that evidence points to one possible major contributor: racism.

Not just the racism of doctors who do not listen to black patients, who do not believe their pain. Not just the racism behind lower levels of access to preventative care, balanced nutrition and safe and stable housing. Doctors and researchers are pointing to the long-term cumulative emotional effects of living with systemic racism — effects that poison both the body and mind.

This is the fear at every traffic stop. This is the struggle to find out why your child has been sent to juvenile detention by the educators that are supposed to nurture and protect them. This is the pain of smiling through countless office jokes that serve up your humanity for laughs. This is the struggle to pay rising rents while working a job that doesn’t think you are management material, and knowing that a bank will never give you a mortgage.

And as we march in the streets to save our kin from state violence, we are called thugs. When we fight for better representation, we are called greedy. When we demand clean drinking water, we are called impatient.

And yet we still fight. And as was done throughout our entire history of struggle, many try to dismiss us. Many say that the real problem is that we are so angry.

Why are you so angry? Dr. King wasn’t angry. Be more like him.

Dr. King was a man of love. His love was oceans deep and wide. This was love not only rooted in his faith, but in his community, his family and his people. And all of Dr. King’s life he saw those that he loved so much abused, degraded and killed by their own nation. And when he saw that, he was angry.

When he was 14 and forced to give up his seat on a bus and stand for a 90-mile bus ride because a white man had entered the bus and decided that seat was going to be his, Dr. King was angry. When he saw peaceful protesters brutalized by fire hoses and police dogs, he was angry. And when he saw the light go out of the eyes of his brothers and sisters when they gave up hope of ever achieving any measure of success, security or safety in this society, he was very angry.

When Dr. King led his peaceful demonstrations in Birmingham and was jailed, and witnessed his friends and fellow activists who were also arrested for their peaceful protest abused by cops, and then he received word that he had been condemned by white church leaders for supposedly inciting this mistreatment — when he heard of these church leaders praising the police who had abused him and his brothers and sisters for maintaining “order,” he was angry.

He wrote to them,“I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of the most inhuman provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes.”

Now I don’t know if you all caught that, but that’s “black preacher sending a long letter that names names and will tell you who you are but in a way that will still get published” — angry.

This is not anger over an insult or snub, this is not anger over a dispute or spurned pride. This was an anger born from love. Righteous, pure love. This is an anger that fights to keep love, and those that you love, alive.

Dr. King wrote about his relationship with anger as he reached out to those church leaders who refused to see exactly what he and so many others were fighting for:

“I have not said to my people, ‘get rid of your discontent.’ But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channelized through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist.

I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized. But as I continue to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love?”

Dr. King was angry, but he worked hard to never forget why. He was angry because he loved. And because he loved, he moved mountains.

When you see students protesting when their local school hosts peddlers of hate, bigotry and violence with open arms, and you wonder why they are so angry, I can tell you. They are angry because the racism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia and transmisogyny being hosted by the institutions charged with nourishing and educating them is doing them real harm.

And they love themselves, and they love each other.

When you see people of color demanding better representation in films, movies, novels, history books, and you wonder why they are so angry, I can tell you. Because when I take my young son to see a movie and nobody looks like him, he is told that he doesn’t exist. He is not a hero and he is not worth saving. He is not slated for adventure or greatness. His story isn’t worth being told. His dreams aren’t worth having.

And when he asks me why there are no brown people in this movie, just like in the last movie and the one before that, when I see him limiting his dreams to what society has told him is the best he, as a boy who does not exist in our tales of greatness, can hope for, I am angry. Because I love him.

I am angry. My brothers are angry. My sister is angry. Many of you are also angry. There is a lot to be angry about.

We are angry at the countless ways that those that we love are being harmed every day.

When people are trying to dismiss your anger, when they try to fault your anger. When they try to treat your anger over violence being done against you and those you love as violence itself, and they invoke the name of Dr. King and his commitment to nonviolence in an attempt to shame you, ask them this: How do you define violence?

What I am fighting for, what we are all fighting for, is for a life of nonviolence. Not only freedom from physical violence. A life free from the all-encompassing violence of systemic oppression. We are fighting for freedom from the violence of the school-to-prison pipeline, from the the violence of food deserts, from the violence of undrinkable water, from the violence of teacher bias.

And those who would envision themselves as allied with black Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx Americans, Indigenous Americans, Pacific Islanders and more at the crosshairs of white supremacy. Those who would envision themselves as allied with Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence must join us in our commitment to fight the violence of a discriminatory justice system, to fight the violence of the racial bias of our medical system, to fight the violence of systemic poverty, to fight the violence of erasure.

And to fight the violence of taking our beloved heroes and community leaders and reducing them to little more than a speech about a dream in order to further diminish us all.

We fight this harm — you fight this harm — because you love. You love your kin, your community, your people, and you love your humanity. You love so much that even when all seems against you, even when hate and bigotry has been voted into our highest offices of government — you are still here. You are angry and tired and hurting — and you are still here.

Because you love.

And when it seems to be too much. When the harm and the anger over that harm threaten to overwhelm you, threaten to turn you into someone you do not want to be, reach in deep and find the love at the heart of it all. Or better yet, don’t reach in, reach out.

The love is right in front of you, it's right next to you, in this room. This community is why. This is what you are fighting for.

Continue to fight. Continue to work to deconstruct the everyday violences that threaten those you love. And while we fight, let’s remember the love that guides us. Let’s fight together, but let’s also take time to care for each other and heal each other. To nourish the love that will nourish us.

And know that our fight is as righteous and as true as Dr. King’s was. Because it is the same fight. And it is the same fight because it is the same love. It is the same love he had for us and still has for us. A love that cannot be extinguished. And as long as it exists, so does the fuel to the fire that we need to one day reach the future that was beyond even the dreams of our most iconic dreamer.


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