“The trouble is that we live in a failed system. Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. … That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we’re going to have to change the system.” —Martin Luther King Jr., March 27, 1968
“Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” —James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, popular misunderstandings of the civil rights movement proliferate and are broadcast around the country. As the holiday celebrating Dr. King is commemorated, we should be especially reflective about the truth of civil rights history. One especially prominent misunderstanding is the idea that this historical battle for human rights can be reduced to a Black desire to be included in white society. This modified version of history makes war, pollution, consumption and several capitalistic excesses (among other terrible things) into norms that Black people all simply wanted to be a part of. For the racial status quo’s sake, the many Black people who didn’t want this then and those who don’t want it now get erased (or added as historical footnotes), tailoring the picture to fit the narrative.
Black people are martyrs, willingly or not, for the nation’s betterment.
Today, at reality’s expense, these doctored versions of history mischaracterize the push for Black liberation. The true spirit of everything real is sacrificed for nationalism’s sake. The nation, in all of its self-aggrandizing exceptionalism, is positioned as a perfect project we should feel grateful to have been (and still be) included in — or, more accurately, abused by.
Schools, museums and other institutions that should be extraordinarily intentional about education routinely position the dynamic Black freedom struggle as something homogenous. The ultimate goal becomes a story of progress that ends with the US as we know it today, of which Black Americans are a uniquely oppressed part. Popular versions of civil rights history portray harm, death and hardship as necessary growing pains that helped develop the character of the US empire. Therefore, the egregious suffering that Black people endured and still face today is made into a medallion representing this country’s supposed collective freedom. According to this reasoning, we have to be brutalized to have a shot at being recognized as human; this particular victimization qualifies us to be a part of this country which also regularly criticizes Black people for being victims. Black people are martyrs, willingly or not, for the nation’s betterment.
On this day, working-class and poor people are supposed to go out and do volunteer service in the spirit of patriotism and loyalty to a country that is still doing a disservice to us.
This is why the narrative surrounding civil rights history is manipulated and used by the state for its own purposes. The oppression experienced by Black people gets swept up into the mythologies of patriotism. Through this realization, we can see what we’re taught to believe as historical accuracy is actually propagandistic when we take into consideration some of the possible outcomes. White America, on all sides, commonly takes selective ownership of Black history narratives that are produced by the state itself, and uses them against Black people who it deems troublesome. Martin Luther King Day was transformed into a day of service by the King Holiday and Service Act of 1994, and people are encouraged to go out and volunteer in their communities. It should be noted that currently the only other “national day of service” is 9/11. It’s worth asking the question: In service to whom, and of what, and why? Surely, service is often a good thing and it should be encouraged, though the US government is not quite the best source to ask it of us, especially Black people.
Among the many human rights violations Black people disproportionately face in the US are extreme poverty, deteriorating schools and even problems as basic as access to clean water. In the midst of this, we’ve seen monstrous attacks on policy (such as the Voting Rights Act) that happened as a result of the civil rights movement. This should be seen as a blatant contradiction to the Martin Luther King Day call to service. On this day, working-class and poor people are supposed to go out and do volunteer service in the spirit of patriotism and loyalty to a country that is still doing a disservice to us.
The determination to be integrated into white society positions white people and whiteness as the human ideal.
King did the work that he did in an effort to bring about an end to the very problems we’re still facing today. The problems of segregation, which are misleadingly recalled by revisionist histories, are problems that have not been completely eradicated in our communities. Despite the taxes we pay and the patriotism we may show, we still find ourselves having to fundraise for our own schools’ basic needs, disaster relief, clean water and much more. The consistent unacceptable violation of our human rights contradicts any decision on our behalf to dedicate ourselves to national pride or patriotic sentiments.
Integration is the focal point of the mainstream civil rights narratives because it was supposed to solve the problem of inequality. However, the true integration that has taken place is the integration of Black spending ability, and not equal treatment because of recognized civil rights. This is why problems that are utterly unacceptable — like access to clean water and working sewage systems — still exist in Black communities today. While Black dollars and capital have made great strides to be integrated into the mix of multicultural US excess, Black people have not yet achieved the equality we’re told we have. As the gap between the wealthiest and poorest grows larger than it ever has, Black people are supposed to be appeased by the hope that we might be able to one day be powerful capitalists ourselves. And though we’ve seen select Black faces in positions of political and corporate prominence, the directive is for us to take pride in our Black representation within these awful power structures, and to live vicariously through these Black elites. While Black poverty and oppression are still overwhelming realities, far too many are quelled by the recognition of a Black face in a traditionally white oppressive place. It should be our hope to see inequality ended and wealth redistributed instead of hoping for more Black representatives in the current unacceptable systems of oppression.
Even if integration itself were the great successful equalizer it’s said to be in the mainstream accounts of civil rights history, there would still be a problem. The determination to be integrated into white society positions white people and whiteness as the human ideal. However, what the US is, and what ideological whiteness represents, are nothing to aspire to. Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) described this perfectly in his 1966 speech at Berkeley:
Several people have been upset because we’ve said that integration was irrelevant when initiated by blacks, and that in fact it was a subterfuge, an insidious subterfuge, for the maintenance of white supremacy. Now we maintain that in the past six years or so, this country has been feeding us a “thalidomide drug of integration,” and that some negroes have been walking down a dream street talking about sitting next to white people; and that that does not begin to solve the problem; that when we went to Mississippi we did not go to sit next to Ross Barnett; we did not go to sit next to Jim Clark; we went to get them out of our way; and that people ought to understand that; that we were never fighting for the right to integrate, we were fighting against white supremacy.
The US, as it is today, still obliges us to question integration mistruths. We must reject the misconception that the company of white people and ability to spend where white people spend liberated anyone. The evidence against this inaccuracy lies in the repetitive cyclical nature of racist government. What has been gained is always under threat, because the forces of white supremacy dominate both ruling US political parties. The US government is still, as Martin Luther King Jr. called it in 1967, the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” The currents of white supremacy that are intrinsic to the US political system should lead us to question the system’s purpose and reason for existence. Rather than simply seeking to integrate into and bring diversity to the political system, we should be encouraging the development of ways to act against it, amplifying criticisms of a capitalist, white supremacist system within the public consciousness.
The idea that racial integration solved racism is completely untrue. The activists who advocated for it deserve better.
False civil rights narratives will not help combat the political bigotry, right-wing authoritarianism and increasingly hostile society prevailing today. It’s arguable that this style of misinformation is actually aiding the far right. When advocating for the extermination of non-white people is called “free speech” and the right of people to self-defend against bigoted attackers is denounced as “violence,” it makes total sense for the state to embrace a selective remembrance of the civil rights movement, in which beneficial protest was entirely “peaceful” and integration was the primary goal.
The point is not that racial coexistence and harmony are not good; it is that how we discuss integration matters. The idea that racial integration solved racism is completely untrue. The activists who advocated for it deserve better.
The fight against tyranny and oppression is also a fight against the subtle forces at play that seek to restrain our justified anger at human rights violations. We do not have to be patient, passive or polite about ending our oppression. So, when we honor Dr. King and the countless others who came before and after him, known or unknown, it’s good to be true to history. It’s good to be reluctant to engage in empty patriotism while the country continues to violate the dignity of its Black citizens — not to mention that of many other oppressed people. We do not owe this country the respect it regularly fails to provide us whilst being the wealthiest nation on Earth. The realization that we are being steered into submissiveness in the midst of an empowered right wing should be more than enough encouragement to completely reject, not reform, the oppressive systems we bear the brunt of daily. If we hope to achieve our liberation, let the plain truth be a beacon to guide us there.