The historical disruption of Martin Luther King, by Xandr Brown

As a multimedia producer, I have a thing for images that catch the eye and words that snag the ear. I’d like to think that Martin Luther King Jr. had an affection for those things as well. No doubt, he was intentional with his words—words we share so freely when we want to relay feelings of unity, fairness, or a belief in justice. 

Everyone likes to quote his words, even people who subscribe only to aesthetic democracy. 

Disinformation isn’t always the lack of telling the truth or establishing the facts. Disinformation can also be dishonest interpretation. In my opinion, Martin Luther King Jr. has been notoriously misinterpreted for the sake of convenience. Because of this, I felt compelled to make this piece and hopefully stir up some ruckus on the matter.

Transcript: For MLK Jr. Day, a Challenge

Hi, I’m Xandr Brown, a producer with the Daily Yonder. Welcome to the home office. I’ve been doing some reshuffling and have been acutely aware of how many books I have. Most of these books have sat on the shelves of my grandparents’ house and now they have followed me here. In light of the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr Day and the fast-approaching Black History month, this book Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr. caught my eye. I realized I had never really read Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s strange to have learned so much about a person, through school and college courses and never met his words face to face. 

So I made the plunge, wondering if I would take anything new from his words besides the kumbaya that usually frames his birthday. I did, and reading him stirred thoughts that have been on my mind for a while.

I think reflection is necessary. I’m sure many of us have done a lot of that in these uncertain times. Whether we were ready for it or not, Covid forced us to confront the ways we arch our lives toward convenience, existing to be convenient, and when we are no longer such, discarded.

Every January without fail, folks seem to water down the potency of disruption that Martin Luther King Jr. was. 

He’s flattened on murals and street signs that some joke are in the roughest parts of America. He is portrayed as the reasonable way of making a difference, of making change without being a vagabond, thug, or rioter. 

In his book Why We Can’t Wait he writes, “No one can pretend that because a people may be oppressed, every individual member is virtuous and worthy. The real issue is whether in the great mass the dominant characteristics are decency, honor, and courage.” 

Descriptors like “decency,” “honor,” or “courage” aren’t synonymous with fealty to the law. Martin Luther King Jr. never was a law-abiding citizen. 

Martin Luther King Jr. was a jailbird. In his call for nonviolence, he encouraged others to willingly go to jail as well. He was a thorn in the side of the left and right alike. He called for unity of the working class Black and White and critiqued the elitism of W.E.B. Dubois’ “talented tenth.” He was on the watch list of the FBI. In fact in 1964, the same year this book was published, the FBI sent a blackmail package to his home in an attempt to destroy his character, undermine the movement, and ultimately make him commit suicide.

Nonviolent as he was, make no mistake he was a threat. 

He called for disruption, a fight against convenience—a fight against going quietly into that good night. Sit-ins, marches, and boycotts of businesses big and small. 

He was a threat to the convenience of keeping things the same and doing just enough to keep the peace. The convenience of being able to live with laws that one may never feel the true effect of. In my view, he represents the fight against the kind of convenience of tokenizing his words without ever having read him. 

Martin Luther King Jr. defied police forces, sat in jail many times and led protests that today would have people raging in the driver’s seat stuck in traffic waiting for the protest to pass.

You don’t have to hurt someone to be a threat. Just like you don’t have to be a slave to be a convenience. You simply have to stop looking, stop questioning, stop wondering about what is going on right in front of you.

So I ask you, on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in what ways have you served convenience and how can you find community enough to be a positive disruption?

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