The March on Washington occurred on the heels of a red summer and overtly racist Republican National Convention acting as a platform for the masses to express their frustration with systemic forces. The 2020 March on Washington, held on the 65th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder marks the 57th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” The march functions, partially, now as it did then, to ignite hope within a wounded nation.
Admittedly, the King I met in my youth was vastly different than the King I encountered as an adult. The King I met as a child was a product of American history. He was introduced as a means to engender acquiescence in the face of racial adversity and his words, which lamented on the ugly racial truths as revealing themselves to his young daughter are now crystallized into the American archive. The now-famous words are King’s wish for his daughter to live in a world that judges her based on the “content of her character” not the “color of her skin.” America has since transitioned words that spoke to an experience specific to blacks in America into a national motto. Though archived as King’s speech, King’s presence in the American cannon betrays the ‘I Have a Dream” speech as captioning America and personifying the nation’s false promise.
The transition, of course, happened after King was fatally shot by an individual who actualized a collective motive to maintain white supremacy. The King memorialized in American history and sterilized for supremacist intention is not the King they killed. Readers can meet the King the white nationalist country murdered in A Stride Toward Freedom, the non-canonical and under-discussed text that delineates the unpopular “side” of a popularized hero. Here, readers will encounter the nationalist incentive that engendered systemic change. Particularly, the text offers an in-depth view of the Montgomery Bus boycotts, delineating black power as undoing the tenuous strings of anti-blackness with unity. In this text, readers witness black power personified beyond the violence and dis-functionality the white supremacist media espouses to black efforts to depart from a racist system. This King was a true black king that would never and could never be popular in an anti-black space.
Popularity is a concept I find myself contemplating a lot given the present context. Particularly, blackness has acquired superficial popularity and to many still seeking white validation, this vanity is a vindicating force. The contemporary world perverts cowardice as courage, optics with opportunity, and progress with stagnancy in the same manner that it transitioned human beings into cargo. Perhaps the gravest confluence in the contemporary climate is between black civil rights and white nationalism. This violent social and systemic praxis evokes a less popular King quotation:
Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
It is the white nationalist need for “safe” black figures whose blackness is incidental, not central, that espouses King’s legacy to American vanity. It is the vain cowardice that dismembers King and his legacy to popularize an unpopular man. It is this unpopularity that remains espoused to true black liberation.
Considering this unpopularity, I think about Nat Turner, who, honestly I think about quite often these days. Nat Turner personifies he who embodies the unsafe and non-political position that King referenced in the provided quotation. Turner personified he who acted, he whose frustration surpassed words, he whose rage extended far past a place where optics could serve as reconciliation. Nat Turner would not have gathered a large crowd, nor would the Al Sharpton that advocated for Tawana Brawley be headling a universal demonstration rooted in advancing past what the white media calls Trump’s America. Similarly, while many quote the late and great Malcolm X, few would have had the courage to follow him, because black power has never and will never be popular.
See, when something becomes popular, it no longer requires courage to participate. Once an action, praxis, or person becomes safe enough to not disrupt supremacist motives, one must only fall into a follower’s role. A role the contemporary world reconfigures as leadership and activism. The same people this culture calls leaders and labels activists are just as likely to follow any other contemporary fad and adopt the pervasive societal views as their own. If black civil rights was not popular at this given moment, the March on Washington would have yielded a much different audience and societal reaction; the same truth applies to the black lives matter protests. Thus, the optics that inundate this anti-black nation does not delineate those who desire change for black people. Rather, what the media projects as a universal plight for civil rights, is creative complicity.
Creative complicity regards black liberation as a dream to which its practioners never plan to wake up and pursue. Therefore, this complicity solely requires performance.
Furthermore, it is in the non-deitized Dr. King, Nat Turner, Malcolm X, Kwame Ture, and every other black person who defied vanity to actualize courage, where the black collective finds the breadcrumbs to black empowerment. Everything else just feeds American vanity with empty performative gestures that act as a mirror which enables anti-black adversaries yet another opportunity to see their white supremacist dreams manifested by black bodies.
I’ll end wit this, King may have marched on Washington, but his unabridged legacy delineates that kings march toward mountaintops. In engaging with the lesson of his life, we, as those who carry the torch he died holding, can do so too.