By Melinda Guerra
The last few years, I’ve seen a lot of people misquoting Martin Luther King Jr., mainly in efforts to shame protesters, silence critique of white supremacy, and attempt to turn the legacy of one of the nation’s most renowned Civil Rights leaders into that of a passive, law-abiding citizen who asked politely for things until white people said “Oh, okay, we’ll give you equality, sweetie. Thanks for asking nicely.”
In truth, Dr. King was arrested 30 times and jailed 29 times. He participated in civil disobedience and–despite ridiculous claims to the contrary–he did shut down highways with his protests. Also, he was targeted by the government, bombed, beaten by police, assaulted, shot at, and killed.
Today, when you see the cherry-picked King quotes, don’t just roll your eyes and keep scrolling. Take a moment and correct the quote, give the context, expose the problems with the meme, or otherwise educate the entity sharing the misrepresenting item.
The internet is full of Dr. King quotes trimmed to a sentence or two and set over a picture of him. If your social media is anything like mine, I imagine you’ll see several today. Here are four of the most popular misquoting memes, along with helpful information to share when you see the meme.
Used: to condemn protests by black communities
1. This actually wasn’t about protesting at all; this was excerpted from a speech about the Vietnam War, specifically the section about America’s warmongering in the midst of shallow cries for peace.
2. The full quote is
“The past is prophetic in that it asserts loudly that wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows. One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. How much longer must we play at deadly war games before we heed the plaintive pleas of the unnumbered dead and maimed of past wars?”*
Used: to silence protesting, particularly by black communities (but strangely rarely posted after a sports team wins a major championship and has a celebration that includes a similar amount of property damage).
- He was still hated by the US government. Have you seen the FBI’s “anonymous” suicide letter to King?
- People still hated him. And people today are upset by even the quiet protests they claim they prefer (see Colin Kaepernick here).
- There’s a persistent belief he never “negatively impacted” someone’s day with something so crass as marching on a major road. This is false. Keep educating.
- He actually had something to say about riots, and about what leads to them. Remind them of this quote:
“I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
Now every year about this time, our newspapers and our televisions and people generally start talking about the long hot summer ahead. What always bothers me is that the long hot summer has always been preceded by a long cold winter. And the great problem is that the nation has not used its winters creatively enough to develop the program, to develop the kind of massive acts of concern that will bring about a solution to the problem. And so we must still face the fact that our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nations winters of delay. As long as justice is postponed we always stand on the verge of these darker nights of social disruption. ” **
Used: to defend the incredibly patronizing and trivializing thought that claiming to be “colorblind” is something laudable, rather than a way of discounting the fact that people of color don’t have the privilege of being “colorblind,” because we have to deal with the fact that our non-whiteness dictates parts of our experiences in ways those who talk about being “colorblind” will never understand.
Also used to defend the idea of America being post-race, which would be laughable if its very falseness didn’t lead to so many awful things.
Also used to suggest King would be against affirmative action, as if he hadn’t been part of a group of leaders proposing an affirmative-action-like employment program (See #5 below).
- This speech actually consists of more than the 2-3 sentences that get quoted. (Seriously, remind them of that. I’m almost convinced people don’t know that.)
- It is foolish and trivializing to claim you “don’t see color” or suggest America is post-race, and flat-out wrong to suggest King wouldn’t support affirmative action programs.
- The march at which he delivered this speech was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As a result of that march, meetings with administration, and a ton of work done by other leaders in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights act of 1965 were passed, with provisions reflecting the demands of that march. But, contrary to popular opinion, that didn’t lead King to suggest we’d “arrived” and the civil rights movement should pack up and go home.(While we’re on the subject, have you paid attention to what happened to the Voting Rights Act before this last election, and the way it impacted communities of color and the outcome of this election?)
- King’s speaking and activism stretched from before this speech to after it. This speech–and even the passage of important (but baby step) laws like the aforementioned Civil Rights Act and Voting Act–was not some final “end” to all he’d said. It was but one speech (and the lines people love to claim were but a few lines) in a long legacy of things he said, and his lifetime should not be reduced to a few nonthreatening lines white people like to remember.
- King and others actually proposed something that sounds an awful lot like the affirmative action programs people use this quote to suggest he was opposed to. He supported a “massive program of economic aid, financed by the Federal Government, to improve the lot of the nation’s 20,000,000 Negroes.”Answering an interviewer’s question about whether it was fair to request a “multibillion-dollar program of preferential treatment for the Negro, or for any other minority group,” King responded as follows:
“I do indeed. Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved, and robbed of any wages—potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation. It is an economic fact that a program such as I propose would certainly cost far less than any computation of two centuries of unpaid wages plus accumulated interest. In any case, I do not intend that this program of economic aid should apply only to the Negro; it should benefit the disadvantaged of all races.”***
So tell your people to cut it with the “he would have been against any reparations” lies, and especially to stop touting this quote while they ignore So Many Other Things He Said.
Used: to belittle frustrated people who are calling for change, and suggest they just choose love instead.
- This is from a speech**** a decade after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and is a rallying cry for what happens next or, as the speech is indexed in the collection at Stanford, “Where Do We Go From Here?” Like so many of the cherry-picked, non-offensive, just-hug-it-out quotes we see from King around this time each year, this line comes from a speech packed with brilliant, contextualizing quotes that somehow don’t seem make it into memes.
- While King’s religious beliefs shaped an ideology that led him to preach against hating people, he never suggested that refraining from hating people meant we should refrain from hating the systemic injustices they keep in place, or the status quo that demands things stay the same. So people don’t get to quote this to silence protesters, or suggest they stop demanding equality.
- This same speech had a wonderful paragraph (great news for those who seem to believe King went around giving “speeches” that were really only one or two lines long) which should be especially interesting to those who like to deny the ways language continues to perpetuate the myth of white superiority:
“We must stand up amid a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values. We must no longer be ashamed of being black. The job of arousing manhood within a people that have been taught for so many centuries that they are nobody is not easy.Even semantics have conspired to make that which is black seem ugly and degrading. In Roget’s Thesaurus there are some 120 synonyms for blackness and at least sixty of them are offensive, such words as blot, soot, grim, devil, and foul. And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable, expressed in such words as purity, cleanliness, chastity, and innocence. A white lie is better than a black lie. The most degenerate member of a family is the ‘black sheep.’ Ossie Davis has suggested that maybe the English language should be reconstructed so that teachers will not be forced to teach the Negro child sixty ways to despise himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of inferiority, and the white child 134 ways to adore himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of superiority. The tendency to ignore the Negro’s contribution to American life and strip him of his personhood is as old as the earliest history books and as contemporary as the morning’s newspaper.To offset this cultural homicide, the Negro must rise up with an affirmation of his own Olympian manhood. Any movement for the Negro’s freedom that overlooks this necessity is only waiting to be buried.”
- If they want to quote this speech, why don’t they go with a section about how much King believed in Black Pride:
“And with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and to the world, ‘I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history, however painful and exploited that history has been. Yes, I was a slave through my foreparents and now I’m not ashamed of that. I’m ashamed of the people who were so sinful to make me a slave.’ Yes, yes, we must stand up and say, ‘I’m black, but I’m black and beautiful.’ This, this self-affirmation is the black man’s need, made compelling by the white man’s crimes against him.”
- Actually, is this a person who quotes cherry-picked King pieces but ignores everything he said about the system of capitalism in this country? Give them this quote, from the same speech:
“[W]e must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’”
I’m sure you’ll see plenty of your own memes misquoting King this year. If you have the emotional energy (and I do understand if you don’t), consider using some of the above responses (or researching your own) and responding, instead of just scrolling past them.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!