Donna Ladd, editor and CEO of the Mississippi Free Press, writes here about the sustained rightwing effort to co-opt Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy of militant resistance to racism and his dedication to telling the truth about our tarnished history. This is an important essay. It’s about a concerted attempt to hijack the words of Dr. King by those who hate his message. It’s about conservative white people like Chris Rufo and Ron DeSantis trying to use his words to prevent honest teaching about the history of racism. I have left the fund-raising appeals in the article because I hope you will send some money to this brave publication.

She writes, powerfully:

I grew up hearing people around me badmouthing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To hear white folk in east central Mississippi in the 1960s and 1970s tell it, he was the very root of all evil, and everything wrong in their lives was his damn fault. He had marched in my hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., in 1966 amid violent chaos when I was a kid—he spoke near the murderers of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by law-enforcement officials.

Yes, Dr. King gave his life in the search for more love and less hate, but he was not only spreading a message of love, as so many white thieves of his legacy try to say today. His message was pure fire. And he was out to hold a mirror up to our nation about white Americans—not only Mississippians and southerners—using terror to maintain power over everyone else and to enjoy the fruits of that terrorism.

Throughout his life, Dr. King toiled and ultimately sacrificed his life in the fight to change power structures and systems established and enforced to keep white people on the top and Black people on the bottom. He wanted America to understand that enslaved people built this nation—after many of their enslavers figured out how to steal the land from Indigenous Americans and forcefully remove them from the land they coveted.

None of this history is pretty or honorable, and Dr. King never tried to say it was or to cover up any of it. He wanted it taught to every person in this country and certainly wanted children to grow up having learned the lessons of the past. He knew that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And he was blunt that he was not likely to live long enough to see that happen.

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When a white man shot him at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Dr. King was more focused than ever on systemic racism and its links with poverty, and he was a harsh critic of capitalism and the Vietnam War. He was putting together the Poor People’s Campaign intending to occupy Washington, D.C., to bring more attention to the racism-poverty connection.

Of course, I didn’t know all that until I was well into adulthood. I knew most white folks in Mississippi hated him, and he was a martyred hero against racism. Like many Americans, I was fed the whitewashed version of Dr. King, which has worsened over the decades. I was nearly 40 when I studied with Dr.Manning Marable at Columbia University and learned the larger and more accurate history of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and many Black freedom fighters. I’ve also read his speeches; I know fully what Dr. King was about and what he supported.

Just read his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop Speech” in Memphis.

Now, 54 years after Dr. King went to Memphis to support a labor strike by sanitary workers, we see so many arrogant efforts by white Americans to remake him into their preferred hero—you know, the one who would tell us all now to forget all that sticky history and get along despite the systemic inequities our history embedded into our nation’s DNA.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sick and offensive. Right here in Jackson, a public-policy institute led by a former Brexiteer from the U.K. used a photo of Dr. King and his words out of context in a report a year ago to push legislation against so-called “critical race theory” in schools. Their report argued the precise opposite of what the Black freedom hero said or wanted. They even twisted his call for “being judged by the content of their character” out of context to make absurd statements about Dr. King, like this one: “Instead of celebrating the enormous achievements made since the Civil Rights Movement, critical race theory specifically rejects King’s color blind ideal and seeks to racialize every aspect of culture, sport, and public discourse.”

“Color-blind ideal”? That’s what this institute—and its board of prominent white Mississippians—think Dr. King meant by the need for white Americans to stop judging people by the color of their skin? Seriously? That’s some shoddy thinking. Or propaganda, as it were. Such cynicism can explain why this institute claiming Dr. King’s moral ground as its own has nine white men and two white women on its board.

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As we consider Dr. King’s legacy this weekend, we must study the whole legacy. No serious person can argue that he would want this nation to block the teaching of our full race history from colleges, schools and homes. No serious person would say that he would want us to simply be proud of how far we’ve come and not examine how far we’ve got to go—until that arc bends toward actual justice and inequity is no longer baked into our systems. No serious person thinks Dr. King would not want us to interrogate how and why inequity became baked into our systems and how to fix them so they don’t keep replicating themselves.

And no serious person would argue that Dr. King would not want the systemic history of slavery, massacres and lynchings that helped end Reconstruction and install Jim Crow, the story of little Ruby Bridges or our Medgar Evers or Lamar Smith down in Brookhaven, the story of ongoing attacks on public education since integration—or the full story of his real dreams taught to every American on this road to eradicating the baked-in legacies of racial suppression and white supremacy.

I get it. Complaining that teaching real race history is somehow “Marxism”—which no serious person would do, either—is bringing back the stunts and propaganda the rich and powerful white people used successfully to scare white folks back in the 1950s and 1960s and even inspire violence against Dr. King and Mr. Evers. The rewriting of history is sick politics. But it is a stunt that all serious people of any party who are, indeed, working not to judge people by their skin color must reject loudly and definitively.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life to speak truth to power. We owe it to him to continue doing just that.

Donna Ladd, Editor and CEO

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