“Freedom always demands sacrifice.”
-Martin Luther King
“For it is the nature of people to love, then destroy, then love again that which they value most.”
-Neale Donald Walsch
“First come smiles, then lies. Last is gunfire.”
My father (Rest In Power) was fond of the adage, “hindsight is 20/20.” This time of year, the legacy of Martin Luther King often comes to mind in connection to that phrase. King died with a 75% disapproval rating among white Americans and a 60% disapproval rating among African Americans. King’s legacy as we collectively celebrate it began some two decades after he was assassinated. King’s poll numbers plummeted as he became more outspoken about the war in Vietnam. This lack of support compared to his relative popularity at the height of the Civil Rights movement was jarring for this man who’d dealt with depression most of his life. People sometimes wonder what they’d do during some of history’s most contentious moments. What you’ve been doing all along, is your answer to that question.
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On April 4, 1968, King was shot through the right cheek. The bullet broke his jaw and several vertebrae, continued down his throat, “severing his jugular vein and major arteries” and finally lodged in his left shoulder. However, we see that King was first attacked with words which tore at his mind and heart. Rather than find healing and reprieve from these scurrilous attacks, he was then attacked with a high caliber bullet which tore at his body. However, King was not alone. History is littered with the bodies of those who died persona non grata, only to receive acclaim decades later. From my understanding of the New Testament, Jesus was such an example–his life sacrificed in order to secure the release of another man whose name I can’t even recall. All too often, we are more James Earl Ray and Pontius Pilate than we’d like to admit.
Every MLK Day calls us to lean into King’s legacy; calls us to remember what King stood for and to emulate his example throughout our daily lives. Every year, we organize community service projects, vigils, memorials, remembrances, recognitions, and celebrations. Every year, we are reminded of how radical King’s love was. Every year we are called to be a little more like King. By the time I was in my early 20’s, at the height of my idealism, I would attend such events and wonder why we hadn’t already achieved this collective goal. I wondered how so many people could come together annually, in earnest, and yet we see such little progress.
The older I get, the more I think the answer lies in the way we remember King to forget ourselves. We are often reminded of his dream, but rarely discuss the nightmare that was his last few years on earth: the death threats, the constant harassment from the FBI, his widely publicized lack of popularity, and his waning influence on young people who were increasingly frustrated with a nonviolent approach to justice. We like the version of King’s story that allows us to feel good about what we’re not doing–the risks we’re not taking. We cannot begin to embody King’s legacy without fully remembering the ways we are deeply invested in the very systems we seek to reform. We have dismembered his legacy and in doing so, ourselves. Our healing is going to require a fuller accounting of his legacy, a more honest accounting of our own, and a reckoning of the past and the present.
In today’s world, we cannot simultaneously chase “likes” and justice. Most of us will not speak truth to power while trying to stay employed. Fundamental change often feels anything but safe and therefore most of us don’t actually want reform. We simply want to appear as though we do. Most of us don’t want to sacrifice our lives for change. Most of us don’t even want to be inconvenienced. One rarely speaks truth to power while remaining oblivious to hard truths in the private recesses of their own mind.
In my case, this isn’t about maintaining my personal safety or the safety of my children. My activism has not rendered that an immediate threat. The truth is, I’m way too invested in keeping my job to always tell my truth. I’m invested in keeping my job in large part because I’m invested in the resources that my income provides. Yes I want to be able to provide for my children–a most noble and worthy calling. However, I also like my electronics too much. I like having the option to send my children to private schools. I like dining out too much. It’s not simply about getting the resources I need. It’s also about maintaining access to the things I simply want. While both my current and previous places of employment encouraged agency around using my voice, I can still find myself mush-mouthed when a truth is staring me in the face–often choosing the comfort of embodying oppression in order to further secure my own comfort.
If I can’t say what’s obvious to me in front of twenty-five people on a zoom call, wtf am I gonna tell America? I often find it easier to speak of leaning into his legacy, rather than naming the myriad of reasons I choose not to. This year, I want to invite myself into a different kind of remembrance. This year, I want to acknowledge that I will not be able to lean into MLK’s legacy because I am not yet willing. This year, I want to invite you to join me in taking off your cape long enough to see that we don’t actually deserve it. This year, I want to invite us to embrace who we are–to remember that which has for so long been dismembered and see what happens.
It is my sincere hope that by such an acknowledgement, we might begin to unravel the web of lies we’ve wrapped ourselves in. Who knows? Maybe by 2023, I’ll feel less judgmental of others because I see myself as I actually am. By 2024, I might actually be able to start telling the truth in the recess of my mind. By ‘25, I might be able to say those things I’ve known were true for years without anger toward those who didn’t see it. By 2030…I might then be able to lean into King’s legacy. History teaches us that you don’t lean into such a radical legacy without sacrifice and shifting. That’s why it’s called “radical.” History therefore teaches us that you don’t have a legacy of love like King’s without some serious hatred and violence accumulating and surfacing along the way. This is a key component of such legacies and often prevents us from following the examples of those we venerate.
Finally, for our purposes, history teaches us that if we don’t understand our personal and honest place in a legacy like King’s, we are far more likely to reenact the role of the violent oppressor. We are far more likely to run into modern-day versions of King and enact the same sort of violence against them in order to protect the very system we say we want to change. We’ll do it with a smile even while celebrating King.
So…Say it with me now: “I am in no way embodying MLK’s legacy in 2022 because I’m too deeply invested in the very system I also want to change.” Now…doesn’t that feel both shameful and freeing? It certainly does for me.
*Editing & thought partnership credit to Rita Molestina
Delma Jackson is a Senior Fellow with CWC. His focus is on facilitating system change on campuses and in institutions through transformative practice and the power of story. He received his undergraduate degree in African-American Studies and Psychology, and his Masters in Liberal Arts with a concentration in American and African American Studies at the University of Michigan. He regularly lectures on a variety of socio-political topics with a special emphasis on intersectional approaches to social justice.