The Myth of a Colorblind King

Each year, prominent writers and political commentators celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s supposedly “colorblind” politics, perpetuating a tiresome assumption that he overlooked race in his public work. This dangerous lie distorts, sanitizes, and mythologizes King’s activism, and de-radicalizes his political legacy. In fact, King’s public statements both before and after the 1963 March on Washington reveal that his rhetoric was far more threatening to contemporary white Americans than popular memory assumes

. America feared King so much that, by his death in 1968, only one third of Americans held a favorable opinion of him. The myth of a “colorblind King” usually stems from a single line in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, where he hoped that one day people will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Consequently, some call King a “colorblind radical,” while others argue that subsequent activists reject King’s dream, and instead imbued their movements in identity politics and victimhood. They claim that new generations of activists move away from King’s vision of hope and racial reconciliation, and instead stress systemic racism and pessimism.

If the colorblind King exemplifies non-violent civil rights activism, subsequent activists are deemed too extreme if they depart from this imagined standard. Activism that deviates from King’s model is thus suffocated and scorned. For America to love King and embrace his legacy, hagiographers have redirected their focus away from race to invent colorblind respectability politics. In A More Beautiful and Terrible History, political scientist Jeanne Theoharis argues that the mythology of the colorblind, respectable King is often used to criticize successive activist groups like Black Lives Matter (BLM). Conservative pundits and politicians who evoke a palatable, colorblind King as the “true spirit” of American citizenship condemn BLM’s assertive tactics and postulate that he would be embarrassed by the current civil rights leaders.

From a historical perspective, the colorblind King erases his deep meditations on race, inequality, and racial injustice in the United States. In reality, King was a “race-conscious” activist who repeatedly spoke of white America’s racial problems. He skillfully used societal juxtapositions between white and Black to explain the disgraceful inequalities that African Americans faced throughout the country. It is easy to understand how King became race-conscious as a Black man in America, as race-consciousness is a “normative behavior that develops in a society where racial stratification is present.” A race-conscious individual feels a deep obligation to their community and actively fights the systems suppressing them.

King understood that racism and racial distinctions exacerbate systemic inequities, and he spoke plainly about historic injustice. His thoughts on government subsidies and reparations arguably reflect the rhetoric of BLM more than the polite, colorblind version constructed by King mythologists. In 1968, King gave a fiery sermon at a small church in rural Mississippi, condemning the US government for enacting policies that primarily benefited white farmers, while simultaneously refusing “to give the Negro any kind of land.” He further explained the land’s value was not solely in its crops, but that white America received “government money” to build land grant colleges that improved their expertise in farming and bolstered advances in agricultural technology. As he and his army of radical activists prepared to march on Washington in 1968, King warned, “We’re coming to get our check.”

Government assistance propelled the white population past those of African and indigenous descent. Meanwhile, King noted the irony that those who receive millions of dollars in government subsidies are the same “people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Author and activist Michael Eric Dyson suggests that this speech reflected King’s understanding of “white privilege,” as he expounded upon the systemic benefits allotted to European-Americans, advantages that came at the expense of Black people. King transparently divulged his feelings about America. After 1965, he often expressed looming pessimism that civil rights were making meaningful advancements. He even evoked Hitler and the holocaust in April of 1967, explaining how racism in Nazi Germany was taken to its “logical conclusion,” asserting that,

“If one says I am not good enough to live next door to him…eat at a lunch counter…or to go to school with him merely because of my race, he is saying consciously or unconsciously that I do not deserve to exist.”

A few months later, he declared that America must understand the “truth” about racism in the country, “and the truth means saying to our nation that the roots of racism are very deep in America and they’re still here, and that racial injustice is still the Black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.”

Interestingly, those who tout Martin Luther King Jr. as a national hero are likely the same individuals who condemned President Barack Obama for suggesting that Americans were not “cured” of racism, which is “still part of our DNA.” It is not a stretch to suggest that, had King given such speeches today, critics would resoundingly condemn his prophetic provocations as divisive and race baiting. Of course, King’s race-consciousness did not emerge in a vacuum, and researchers should continually investigate Coretta Scott King’s impact on his rhetoric of racial injustice and economic inequality. While popularly mythologized as a gentle “helpmate” to her husband, scholars now recognize her radical activist credentials. According to biographer Clayborne Carson, Scott King was “more politically active at the time they met than Martin was.”

Born in Jim Crow Alabama, Scott King’s family survived systemic violence and racist terrorism. During her college years, she was active in various race-conscious organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Race Relations and Civil Liberties Committees on campus.

Through interviews and correspondence, historians know that Scott King pushed Martin to broaden the parameters of his activism. In fact, she was thinking globally far earlier than her husband, and by 1964 “she pressed him to make the international dimension of the philosophy of nonviolence more prominent.” Following his assassination, Scott King continued their message by condemning the United States’ involvement in Vietnam and demanding the government extend assistance and benefits to the American poor. Though attuned toward the plight of all marginalized people, in a 1986 letter Scott King proclaimed her and Martin’s primary mission was to “protect and enhance the rights of Black Americans.” She also condemned homophobia by arguing it stemmed from the same prejudicial poison as racism, and she fought to end Apartheid in South Africa.

Even three decades removed from her husband’s assassination, Scott King directly critiqued the gross misuses of his legacy during debates over affirmative action in the 1990s. In a statement quoted in the Oct. 27, 1998 issue of the New York Times, she plainly argued, “we do not live in a society that is truly color-blind, and until that day comes, affirmative action remains a necessary and vital tool towards equality.” Her race-conscious approach doubtlessly influenced and bolstered King’s own sentiments, and future scholarship should examine how the couple’s conceptions of race and inequality resonate beyond both of their lifespans.

One might be tempted to say that King became more race-conscious toward the end of his life because he moved away from his originally polite, colorblind rhetoric of 1963, but this assumption is incorrect. His contemporary writings and speeches demonstrate how race-consciousness inspired the entirety of his activism. Written shortly before the 1963 March on Washington, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” bluntly condemned the “white moderate,” arguing that their devotion to “order” rather than justice made them as great a stumbling block to the Civil Rights Movement as the Ku Klux Klan. Even a closer look at the “I Have a Dream” speech reveals a race-consciousness that imperils the rendering of a colorblind King.

Though more amenable to the possibility that white Americans possessed concern for the rights of African Americans, this speech noted that Black people faced unique obstacles in their social advancement: “we can never be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one…we cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” By referencing the plight of Black people in New York, where some people presumed Jim Crow did not exist, King suggested that inequality was a national issue impacting all Americans of African descent. Legislative change was one step, but Black people needed political representation and authentic support from white allies to overcome the nation’s systematic anti-blackness.

By 1968, controversy inhabited King’s public persona. He had proclaimed opposition to the Vietnam War, and criticized the American government’s imperialist role in global politics. He had condemned America’s treatment of nonwhite populations, and led a “Poor People’s Campaign” designed to uplift marginalized Americans. By the time of his death in April 1968, King had asserted that legislative changes had not remedied the threat of violence against Black Americans. Although he enjoys a hagiography in the twenty-first century, King’s public statements castigating white racism would be unrecognizable to an American population that continues to sanitize his legacy through selective quoting, intentional distortion, and explicit mythologizing.

Collapsing King’s legacy through a narrow focus on his “dream” makes sense for constructing an imagined past, but King himself would find that focus bewildering. He said as much in his later years. In a 1967 speech popularly titled “The Three Evils of Society,” King explained that a year before in Chicago he faced ire from “angry young men of our movement” who expressed dismay at the lack of social and economic change for Black Americans. He self-reflectively examines the situation in explicitly racial terms, explaining, “They were now hostile because they were watching the dream, that they had so readily accepted, turned into a frustrating nightmare.”

King never shied away from honestly reflecting on race. He clearly believed that white America, either through indifference or overt racism, was the primary obstacle to the socio-economic progress of African Americans. Although this does not mean King despised white people as individuals, his race-conscious rhetoric offers a precursor to the popular academic terms known as “whiteness” and “white privilege.” If privilege connotes social and economic benefits, and whiteness embodies its most apparent manifestations, King spoke plainly about these concepts and recognized that systemic advantages in America are predicated on racial identifications. A critical analysis of his public work reveals he was not colorblind, but recognized how the legacies of racial injustice ensured systemic benefits for white Americans.

About the Author

Tyler D. Parry is Associate Professor of African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. His research examines slavery in the Americas and the African diaspora. He is currently writing a book on how the marital practices of diasporic Africans and their American-born descendants were transmitted, reimagined, and politicized due to the process of forced migration and the legal dilemmas of slave marriage in the West Indies and the US South.