A sanitized MLK

Jen Bradbury
Jun 16 · 5 min read

Over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Martin Luther King Jr.

As a kid, MLK was the ONE black man I learned about in a positive way. He was the pastor who gave the “I have a dream” speech and who advanced the notion of peaceful protest in a moment when the country was ablaze with race riots. Because of that, we honored him with his own holiday.

As a church worker and follower of Jesus, I’ve come to deeply respect and admire MLK’s work. Often, we equate his movement with the way of Jesus.

But as an adult, I’ve also come to understand that Martin Luther King Jr is revered largely because he did what he did peacefully. That made his efforts palatable to white America – at least in retrospect.

Unfortunately, because of that, it’s become too easy for good, Christian white people like me to use MLK to condemn what’s happening NOW. When today’s protestors deviate from King’s playbook, we hold that playbook up and say, “They’re NOT doing it right!”

In so many ways, MLK is a saint.

But that’s part of the problem. We’ve sanitized MLK and given him a holiday rather than truly working to overturn the unjust systems he fought so hard against.

For white suburbanites like me, MLK is palatable. We’re used to him; Even accustomed to him. We happily post MLK quotes on Facebook to show our friends and family how good and not racist we are, even though most of us haven’t actually read much of MLK’s written work. Doing so allows us to feel like we’re doing something without actually doing any of the real work necessary to understand whiteness or racism and thus work towards systemic change.

I became acutely aware of this a few years ago, when I stood in the hotel room in Memphis where MLK Jr was shot and killed at our nation’s Civil Rights Museum.

I was shocked by what I learned there.

It wasn’t the whitewashed version of civil rights I learned in school.

It was raw and brutal and complex and far from over.

At the Civil Rights Museum, I realized that MLK was but ONE leader from that era. He was ONE person who gave voice to the civil rights era. But he wasn’t the only one.

And he shouldn’t be the only voice that white America is turning to now.

If we truly want black lives to matter and for our country to become more just and equitable, then we have to stop treating the civil rights era as though it’s part of our history rather than our present reality.

We have to stop treating MLK as the ONE good black voice we’ll listen to.

Instead, we have to listen to today’s civil rights leaders - people including (but not limited to) Bryan Stevenson, Ibram X. Kendi, Austin Channing Brown, Latasha Morrison, and Lalya F. Saad. These are some of the voices who can guide us through this unique moment in time. They can teach us why peaceable protests don’t always work. They can show us what black Jesus looks and acts like. They can redefine what it means to do justice.

They can do so because they’re here with us now. THIS is their lived reality… Just like the 60s were MLK’s.

Because they’re here now, theirs are the voices we currently need.

They’re the ones who can speak directly to what’s going on NOW in our country and world. They can speak about their lived experience with the new Jim Crow and mass incarceration and police brutality. Their stories can jar us out of our complacency and help us understand our own complicity in systemic racism.

They can help us lean into our own discomfort and challenge us to do our own work to understand our whiteness.

Because if we do the work, then maybe we won’t do to them what we’ve done to MLK: Sanitize them in order to make them safe, comfortable, and a little more palatable for us white people to handle.

Maybe if we stop sanitizing black leaders, we can also stop whitewashing history.

Maybe then the legacy of civil rights and MLK won’t just be a three- day weekend.

Maybe it’ll actually be a more just, equitable, and free society.