How Not to Talk About MLK on This Historic Day (Or Ever, Really)


Today is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King was a lion among men, one of the most visible civil rights leaders of his time (maybe of all time), his rhetoric was soaring and accessible and inclusive. So, on occasions such as these, it’s tempting to wonder what he might think about our modern social justice dilemmas. But this can often go horribly wrong. Perhaps it’s time to reflect on this trend before someone pens the inevitable “Dr. King’s Thoughts on Miley; Twerking” longread.

There are millions of right ways to talk about Dr. King. Here are some of the wrong ones.

Comparing Dr. King to Some Cheesedick White Rapper

Okay, guys. I know Macklemore wrote that song about being a straight guy who supports gay marriage, and many of you felt feelings about it. Good for Macklemore, I guess. (By the way, this idea that Macklemore was the “first” rapper to talk about queer issues is absolute nonsense.) But one song espousing support for the most basic of gay rights does not a Dr. Martin Luther King parallel create. Kaitlyn O’Neal over at The Daily Athenaeum disagrees:

“Same Love” challenges the right-wing conservatives who think it’s a decision to be gay, and it doesn’t hesitate to slam those people for “playing God” by trying to turn gay people straight. It tasks America for her failure to learn from her past mistakes in denying human rights, then offers up a solution with marriage equality: “a certificate on paper isn’t gonna solve it all / But it’s a damn good place to start.”
The song is not original in its call for equal rights. Fifty years ago this week, a man named Martin Luther King, Jr gave his most famous oratory “I Have a Dream.”

A man named Martin Luther King, Jr., you say? Was he at the VMAs on Sunday night? I think I have his first album!

Macklemore challenges us in “Same Love,” just as MLK challenged America 50 years ago.

Yeah. Alright. I…I have to go.

Saying Any of the Things Fox News Says

Fish, barrel, candy, baby, etc. BUT. These guys have basically been teaching a master class in insensitive bullshit over the last week. Chris Wallace wondered, “how much longer the government should give special treatment to minorities,” especially given that “it is 50 years after Martin Luther King’s speech.”

Dr. King, can you please explain this basic shit Chris Wallace?

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.

Wallace refers to the “I Have a Dream” speech like it’s some sort of historical finish line. But King’s speech wasn’t the end of anything—it was the beginning. It was a call to action, not just a reflection on the success of the civil rights movement. There was no “Mission Accomplished” banner hanging from the Lincoln Memorial. Wallace suggests that the mere passage of time ought to be sufficient in terms of racial equality and justice for all human beings. Dude, no. This is absolutely the wrong way to talk about Dr. King.

Gutting the Voting Rights Act Because Racism is Over

You know that guy in college who always dressed like he just got off a boat and was the president of the Young Republicans and believed strongly in the idea of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps? Well, that guy is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States now.

Back in June, Roberts wrote the majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, a case that found portions of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. The decision effectively makes it easier for states with histories of racial discrimination to make it more difficult for racial minorities to vote. Roberts wasn’t too worried about that, though. The Voting Rights Act “has proved to be immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process,” wrote Roberts. “So let’s get rid of that fucking thing,” he continued, before changing into his chinos and heading to the yacht club.

This is the wrong way to talk about Dr. King, even though Roberts had the good sense to avoid mentioning him by name. This may come as a surprise to you, but ensuring that racial minorities had access to the polls was kinda important to Dr. King. He was present at the signing of the VRA in 1965, for chrissakes! People have said some majorly dumb stuff about Dr. King, but Roberts straight up set fire to his legacy. Well done, Chief Justice John Roberts. May you ever be the worst.

On this historic day, be sure to talk about Martin Luther King, and Ella Baker, and Emmett Till, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Stokely Carmichael, and Medgar Evers, and all the people who fought and died for justice. But don’t be an idiot about it. I’m watching you.

Meagan Hatcher-Mays is a recent graduate of Washington University Law School in Saint Louis. She does a significant amount of yelling on Twitter.

Image via Getty.

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