In February we celebrate Black History Month in America.
For the entire month, we commemorate the vast contributions from Black people who have impacted society here and abroad. After all, we are responsible for countless inventions and innovations in art, science, athletics, business, and activism, contributions that often get overlooked because of our country's pervasive legacy of racism.
Black History Month may also be the only annual instance that this country comes close to acknowledging its racist heritage. The brilliance that Blackness has provided modern-day society is, unfortunately, also rooted in hatred and exclusion.
Recognizing the creations shaped by the hands of Black people means examining the oppressive infrastructures that sparked their genius. One of those infrastructures is slavery.
The mention of slavery prompts various reactions amongst white people. Some declare it to be our country's greatest shame, while others act as if it never happened. If the latter admits to its existence, it's to admonish others for "living in the past."
The celebration of Black History Month and the acknowledgment of slavery go hand in hand. Although a vast majority of Black History itself isn't a direct result of slavery, its ramifications are certainly a factor.
For instance, Martin Luther King Jr'.s vaunted legacy hinges upon his fight against racism and segregation. His peaceful marches and resounding speeches became the introduction to Black History and the Civil Rights Movement for most children in elementary schools across the country.
King is a lauded American hero for his fortitude. But his battle with a racist system is often romanticized. His reimagining sees him as a man standing up for his beliefs instead of a victim of a hateful construct who was forced to rise up against his oppressors.
The irony resides in Black people being labeled as world-changers and trailblazers in the eyes of history but only being allowed to access a small portion of it in order to apply their craft.
Similarly, Black people becoming a dominant force in sports and entertainment hasn't been without their share of obstacles. Unlike today where they have access to a worldwide audience to entertain, Black musicians and athletes' sole audiences used to be people who looked like them.
Sports pioneer Jackie Robinson made history as the first Black man to play professional baseball. His breaking of the color barrier instituted a new day in American sports, but the country's prejudicial temperament remained the same. Robison received death threats from angry white fans, players, and even owners.
Furthermore, musicians like Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, who are pioneers of Rock and Roll, are credited with inspiring The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. But during the '50s, their sound was classified as "race music." Conversely, that same "race music" was acceptable when taken and repurposed by white artists.
They and others like them persevered in the face of adversity to open doors for Black people today. Their struggles are reminders of the resiliency of Black people that changed the world and the unnecessary roadblocks they had to overcome to do so.
Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry
The observance of Black History Month in today's racial climate in America feels insincere. When entities are dedicated to oppression the other 11 months of the year, it's hard to believe their calls for racial unity in February
We voice our grievances about the government and law enforcement's wanton negligence daily, only to hear how stuck in the past we are as a race. Yet, that same past is responsible for the evolution of civilization as we know it today. Without Black people, America would not be the culturally rich place it is today.
Still, many feel sentiments like "Black Lives Matter" are radical movements, when in actuality they are an ever-present reminder of the conditions Black people had to navigate to pull off these incredible feats.
America cannot sincerely immerse itself in the celebration of Black History Month until it confronts its history. Racism is the beating heart beneath the floorboards of privilege. But as the beating grows louder, our country continues to disregard its pulse.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy is defined by his pursuit of equal rights for Black Americans through unity and peace.
He is canonized in American history as the patron saint of change through passive measures.
His infamous "I Have A Dream" speech was a rallying cry for this country to live up to its promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. King urged us to be a nation that advocates for the inclusion of all of its citizens in the American Dream, no matter their race.
But Dr. King's message of non-violence and civil disobedience is often misinterpreted. For some in the Black community, it means doing absolutely nothing in the face of physical harm from white people. In the hands of many conservatives and racists, his beliefs are a gag order against racial injustice. They have distorted King's dream in an attempt to make us docile.
The marches and protests during the Civil Rights Movement were peaceful acts of civil disorder. King implored members of the movement not to engage in chaos and destruction. Unfortunately, these non-threatening gatherings became violent due to agitation from law enforcement, despite honoring King's wishes of peaceful resistance.
At the time, King's call for unity and equal rights was considered radical and unpatriotic. The FBI had him under surveillance, and he was the recipient of death threats from white extremists. King was a beacon of peace; but, his cause made him a target for hate.
The narrative surrounding King's death has been warped, as well. Revisionist history paints him as a martyr when, in reality, he was a victim of white supremacy. His assassination in 1968 was a cruel irony. He preached peace only for its antithesis to be his demise.
Today, civil unrest is at an all-time high. Innocent Black lives are taken by police almost daily, and the election of President Trump brought to light how much America hasn't changed since Jim Crow. We've applied the same tactics that King advised his followers to use, only to receive the same treatment decades later.
When highlighting the level of violence against non-aggressive demonstrations, many on the Right feel that Black people's right to protest is a justification for police brutality. In their eyes, the need to peacefully assemble to combat racism is excessive and unnecessary, as if any non-violent uprising is a threat and has to be silenced to preserve law and order.
Even Black entertainers and athletes have faced public backlash for speaking against racial inequality. NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was blackballed for kneeling in protest against police brutality. Kendrick Lamar's "Alright", a song about Black people overcoming struggle, was deemed an anti-police anthem. White America demonized them and others for using their platforms to bring awareness.
Meanwhile, white nationalism doesn't face the same level of persecution that Black liberation receives. Racists and fascists that subscribe to Trumpism are considered "patriots." But Black people seeking a level playing field are labeled as treasonous. One side has resorted to rioting as a last resort. The other looked at insurrection as a first solution.
Over 50 years after his death, Dr. King's message of peaceful resistance is a patronizing jab at the Black community. His philosophy isn't a factor when barbaric bigots are looking to harm us. Instead, it's as a pseudo restraining order to thwart our attempts at seeking change and potential retaliation.
For many Americans, Dr. King was a Civil Rights Superman. Unfortunately, his stance has become the movement's kryptonite.
50 years after M.L.K. was assassinated, his legacy continues to inspire. Who are the strongest voices fighting for his vision?
In the 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, his legacy has only gained momentum as activists and everyday citizens fight against prejudicial policies that would scale back his vision of equality, rather than realize it. The March on Washington may be most commemorated for Dr. King's speech on August 28, 1963, but the determination of the Civil Rights Movement inspired even more than the 250,000 people who demonstrated in the nation's capital that summer. Dr. King declared, "Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed."
True to his legacy of equality, Dr. King's passion touched people from all walks of life, from famous actors and politicians to scholars and everyday citizens. Here are 5 people whose aspirations were inspired by MLK:
1. Ineva May-Pittman, activist and NAACP member who marched with Dr. King:
"I just felt–free. With all these people from all across the country and the world, of all ethnicities, together–no incidents or anything, and everybody was friendly toward each other...Why can't this be, you know, all the time? So we had to come back and double our determination to try to make it be. And we still workin' on it."
2. Frankye Adams-Johnson, activist and teacher who marched with Dr. King:
"I felt that somehow we had achieved whatever this freedom meant, that it had been achieved there in Washington. We had marched, we had listened to speeches, and we had been moved by the great Martin Luther King, Jr." Reflecting on the summer of 1963, she says, "I envisioned that our quality of life as an African-American people … would be better for more of us than the handful that it is. I don't want to put a damper on celebrating and commemorating. But I will just say there's still so much more we need to be fighting for."
3. Forest Whitaker, actor:
"We followed him because he was holding your hope. The hope that your life would be full and complete with equality. There are few people in history who take that position that allows people to follow and change, who represent something powerful...He did it in this country and made people walk with him towards a better life. I think it's difficult for the next generation to see the things that happened before...So you have to continually, historically remind them and try to make them aware of what Martin Luther King was doing that we are all in this together. And that hope is alive today."
4. Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States:
"Dr. King was 26 when the Montgomery bus boycott began. He started small, rallying others who believed their efforts mattered, pressing on through challenges and doubts to change our world for the better A permanent inspiration for the rest of us to keep pushing towards justice."
5. Stevie Wonder, along with 80 other iconic figures, and the youth of today:
In commemoration of Dr. King's assassination in Memphis in 1968, musician Stevie Wonder created a powerful tribute to Martin Luther King that called upon figures from Apple CEO Tim Cook and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to Serena Williams and Paul McCartney. Most powerfully, he called for all Twitter users to post their own dedication to Dr. King and how he continued to inspire today's generation. He posted, "On April 4, 1968 at 7:05 p.m. central time, Dr. King's life was cut tragically short. 50 years later a need for his dream to be fulfilled is far greater than ever. Share your dream & post your own #DreamStillLives video. Spread love...spread hope"
On April 4th, 1968 at 7:05 p.m. central time, Dr. King’s life was cut tragically short. 50 years later a need for h… https://t.co/XVJ9Gis9zp— Stevie Wonder (@Stevie Wonder)1522886700.0
The American icon was a complicated man.
Every year, we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr. on the third Monday of January. This typically works out to be around King's birthday, January 15. Most people know that King was a civil rights leader that fought against segregation. He also worked to secure voting rights for black Americans and other minorities. His work helped push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress and into law.
But there is so much more about Martin Luther King Jr. that just isn't common knowledge. Here are a few things that have been forgotten over the course of history.
1. King was a strong supporter of democratic socialism.
During the 2016 election, Bernie Sanders brought the term "democratic socialism" to the forefront of American politics. But Martin Luther King Jr. openly supported the philosophy throughout his life. As a child, King saw the bread lines during the Great Depression. "I can see the effects of this early childhood experience on my present anti-capitalistic feelings," he wrote in a paper while he was a divinity student in 1950. King saw capitalism as "a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes."
2. King's activism went beyond the Civil Rights Movement.
He also protested the Vietnam War. In 1967, King delivered a speech entitled "Beyond Vietnam," in which he called for the United States to stop bombing in Vietnam. He also stated that American troops should pull out of the area and the U.S. should enter into a truce that would lead to peace talks. King viewed the American intervention in Vietnam as imperialism. He was staunchly anti-war and a pacifist.
3. It wasn't until the year 2000 that MLK Day was observed in every state.
While Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday in 1986, but not every state observed it until 17 years ago. South Carolina became the last state to recognize the holiday in 2000. Because MLK Day is a federal holiday — not a national one — only federal employees received a paid day off. The holiday was met with resistance when it was first enacted because some felt King was too subversive to receive federal recognition.
4. King held numerous academic accomplishments.
Throughout his life, King's intellect shined in his writing and activism. As an adolescent, he skipped both the 9th and 12th grades. He entered Morehouse College at age 15. He studied Sociology and Systematic Theology and received his Ph.D. in 1955. He was also awarded many honorary degrees from various U.S. institutions and some foreign universities. Among them are multiple degrees titled Doctor of Law, Doctor of Humanities and Doctor of Divinity.
5. Over 900 streets in the United States are named after Martin Luther King Jr.
After his assassination in 1968, many states re-named streets in his honor. His name even graces streets in foreign countries. Forty states in America have at least one street named after King. Unfortunately, many of the streets in the U.S. with his namesake often struggle economically. These streets tend to have high levels of poverty, inequality, and racial segregation when compared to their respective cities and states.
6. He was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice in America. At 35, he was the youngest person to ever receive the award. Alfred Nobel, for whom the award is named, described the recipient of the Peace Prize as "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."
7. King was a fan of Star Trek.
The classic science fiction TV show first aired in 1966. Star Trek made a mark on American pop culture and civil rights. The U.S.S. Enterprise crew was made up of various races and nationalities, including Lieutenant Uhura. Nichelle Nichols even discussed with King the possibility of leaving the show after its first season. King encouraged her to stay on. The representation of an African-American woman in a position of leadership was too important.
8. He was TIME Magazine's first black Man of the Year.
In 1963, TIME Magazine named King as the Man of the Year. That was the same year King delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech on the steps of President Abraham Lincoln's memorial. The magazine cited King's essay "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and his leadership in many peaceful protests as justification for the title.