Trump’s win and America’s divisiveness have left some Americans feeling hopeless ― but this country has reckoned with this kind divisiveness before. We’ve gone through Civil War, after all. And Reconstruction. And those decades of Jim Crow that gave way to what we know today as the Civil Rights Movement, an era that more and more feels eerily similar to the one we’re living in today.
Since his assassination in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has gone from being an ordinary man fighting for a righteous cause, to a man who has become as synonymous with the American story as the founding fathers. The memory of Dr. King has been used as a shorthand for morality.
But also, Dr. King’s legacy and what he stood for has been watered down, oversimplified, and appropriated to justify the very things he fought against. His words have been twisted in order to denounce the Black Lives Matter movement, and bolster anti-transgender bathroom bills.
No one can really presume to know how Dr. King would have actually felt about the current state America were he still alive, but what one can do is make healthy assumptions based on the life he lived, and the things he said. Martin Luther King likely would have been horrified by Trump’s America.
As Trump’s inauguration looms closer and closer, landing just a day after we celebrate Dr. King, what we should actually take away from his legacy are not the sanitized platitudes about “peace and equality,” but the burning fire for change and most of all action that made Dr. King the great leader that he was.
His lessons went far beyond “I Have A Dream.”
1. This is not normal.
We cannot settle into a false sense of complacency and accept the next four years as our “new normal.” In 1964, Dr. King wrote about the dangers of electing Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, and his words are eerily resonant today. “While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist,” King said. “His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand.” Goldwater lost to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, but today, we’re living in the reality that Dr. King warned against. What we should take away from King’s words, then, is that there is possibly even more at stake today than there was back then.
2. Colorblindness isn’t the solution, but focusing on our economic similarities might be.
So many of the white people who voted for Trump in support of the vague notion of making America “great” again were people who arguably voted against their own interests. In the days since his win, stories about Trump voters who now fear the loss of their Obamacare and reproductive rights have campaign fed on the distrust of the “other,” be they undocumented immigrants or BLM protestors. But what Dr. King knew, and what we shouldn’t lose sight of, is that selling the narrative of fear of the other is simply a tactic to distract from the social issues that plague us all.
In his 1968 sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” Dr. King talked about his interaction with white prison guards during a night in jail. During a conversation about race, the guards informed King of their measly salary.
“You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as negroes,” King said.
“You have been put in the position of supporting your oppressors, because through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress negroes in American society oppress poor white people too. And all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big, when you are so poor you can hardly send your children to school.”
3. Everyone has to mobilize in the movement for equality.
In Trump’s America, a clear course of action in combating the possibly harmful legislation and rhetoric to come will be vital. While social media has changed and even enhanced activist work, Dr. King’s on-the-ground mobilization is something to be emulated. Between 1961 and 1968, the SCLC’s Citizenship Education Program trained over 8,000 people in organizing. These people then shared what they had learned in their own communities, sparking a chain-reaction of change. What Dr. King understood more than anyone was that in order to end segregation and secure basic rights for black people across the nation, the movement would need to include a large cross section of Americans. This meant people of different racial backgrounds, education, and economic classes. This meant that white people who were against Jim Crow had to be just as vocal, just as willing to to speak out against injustice as blacks were.
4. All forms of protest should be understood.
During his campaign, Donald Trump often dismissed and incited disdain for the Black Lives Matter movement. He was completely unwilling to actually engage with protestors, and in turn his followers vilified and condemned the protests in cities like Ferguson and Charlotte. Again, Dr. King’s memory was often invoked as a way to shame protestors and rioters alike. But one thing to know about Dr. King is that he didn’t shame or dismiss the frustrations of black people that erupted in unrest.
“Urban riots... may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community,” King said in a 1967 speech. He explained that riots are a “distorted form of social protest,” and that looting “enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse.”
He added: “But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights. There are thus elements of emotional catharsis in the violent act.”
5. The concept of love.
After Trump’s win, there was a swell of think pieces asking those who felt angered or threatened by the prospect of a Trump presidency to understand and even empathize with the people who voted for him. But how do we empathize with people who cannot show empathy for us? Dr. King is best known for his message of love and non-violence towards the oppressor. But King was not necessarily a pacifist. His commitment to love and non-violence was not idealistic ― it was a calculated tactic. When he talked about love, King often referred to “agape,” the highest form of love, a spiritual love. In a 1957 essay Dr. King explained the concept this way:
“In speaking of love we are not referring to some sentimental emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense … When we speak of loving those who oppose us we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word Agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming goodwill for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. ”
The love Dr. King preached was not a love that asks the oppressed to ignore or deny their own oppression in the interest of unity. Instead, it’s a love of self and of society that compels the oppressed to stand up for what’s right for the good ofall people.