Op-Ed: King was a critical race theorist before there was a name for it
For the first time, we’re observing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday under new laws in multiple states that ban the instruction of “divisive” interpretations of our racial past. The assaults have given new weapons to an enduring faction in American society that has long resisted the reckoning that his life’s work demanded.
In King’s day, this faction was known as the “Massive Resistance,” an effort to organize and frustrate the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and efforts to build multiracial classrooms. Today, this faction is known as the “anti-CRT” effort, which seeks to proscribe race-related curricula, books or trainings that offer a discomforting view of our past and its current implications.
Teachers, public officials and students are in a particularly unsustainable bind. They’re charged with honoring King as a figure while disavowing the ideas that he lived and died to advance. They’re being asked not merely to defer King’s dream of racial equality but to decommission it altogether.
King would likely take bitter note of the all-too-familiar dynamics behind today’s backlash. After the 2020 global movement for racial justice in the United States and beyond in the wake of the savage police killing of George Floyd, legislatures in 32 states have relied on what is patently a lie — that antiracism is antiwhite — to fuel the antidemocratic crusade against what they call “critical race theory.”
For more than 30 years, scholars have employed critical race theory as an analytical tool. The right has rebranded it as the new racism, as wokeness run amok, as a threat to innocent schoolchildren and as a stalking-horse for the demise of “Western civilization” itself. The theory has become the target of coordinated efforts to stigmatize and erase generations of antiracist knowledge, advocacy and history. The objective is both to disappear antiracism’s history and to deny its contemporary salience.
King himself is a prime casualty in this effort. Apostles of the McCarthyite crackdown on critical race theory have exploited him as a mouthpiece for their cause, reducing him to a solitary, decontextualized line from the “I Have a Dream” speech about a future in which his four children were to be judged not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Some use King’s words to erase his deeds and those of millions more who rose up to “make good the promises” since Reconstruction. In Tennessee, for example, the Moms for Liberty sought to ban Frances E. Ruffin’s children’s book “Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington” by framing its descriptions of segregation and the violence meted out against King and others as traumatizing and racist. The Moms argue that Ruffin’s portrayal of white racism against people of color “will sow the seeds of racial strife, neo-racism, neo-segregation, and is an affront” to King’s ideals. This reveals precisely what comes of a persistent and willful ignorance of King’s legacy.
The sheer power on display to turn King against himself — a process that has been underway since the first day this holiday was celebrated — is a grim reflection of the way opponents have long subjected antiracist thinking and activism to distortion, misappropriation and redefinition. The brazen casting of critical race theory as the contemporary villain following 2020’s racial reckoning is no surprise.
The King holiday and Black History Month are an excellent opportunity — perhaps the only opportunity — to course-correct, contest and redirect the misconceptions about King’s legacy and its interface with critical race theory. Recovering the real King begins by freeing his image from the clutches of those seeking to substitute truthful education with a saccharine narrative built on illusions, delusions and lies.
Dr. King was an “inconvenient truth teller.” His insistence on the urgency of racial justice put him at odds with moderate whites in the South, and his denunciation of imperialism put him at odds with allies more narrowly focused on the freedom struggle within U.S. borders.
For telling these truths, in life, King was often criticized rather than celebrated. At the time of his death, polls showed that most white people held an unfavorable view of him. The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, framed him as a national security threat. Some Black leaders were hardly convinced of his tactics — his civil disobedience was too radical for some, his nonviolence too accommodationist for others. But for King, the demands for racial justice were not to be won through a popularity contest or by painting a comforting picture of the U.S. social order. Nor was King’s an identity-obsessed demand for recognition. He offered a clear-eyed assessment of a would-be democracy in a state of disrepair. Confronting it at its source was the only way forward.
It’s no accident that the firestorm over critical race theory has singed King’s message: King was, in fact, a critical race theorist before there was a name for it. A core observation of the theory is the recognition that the promise of liberation extends beyond the elimination of formal segregation and individual-level prejudice. Critical race theory explores how racial inequality was historically structured into the fabric of the republic, reinforced by law, insulated by the founding Constitution and embedded into the infrastructure of American society. Similarly, King observed in 1967 that “the doctrine of white supremacy was embedded in every textbook and preached in practically every pulpit,” entrenched as “a structural part of the culture.”
Accordingly, King’s appeal in the March on Washington in 1963 was grounded in the assertion that the promise of a fully inclusive American democracy — one that lived up to its oft-stated ideals — required creative confrontation with a republic out of step with its promises. He rebuffed those who found fault in the tensions created by placing our norms and our realities in sharp relief.
King famously wrote a letter rejecting the counsel of white moderate allies who argued for a gradualist accommodation to the prioritized sensibilities of those who didn’t experience the sting of segregation. As a father, he conveyed the anguish of his own children, who couldn’t understand why they weren’t allowed into the Funtown amusement park, which barred Black visitors, while the joy of white children was privileged. He argued elsewhere that “justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.”
King centered the promise of equal access to the ballot — now under concerted assault — at the heart of his prophetic mission. He fought to win passage of both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and he understood that the provisions of each law were part and parcel of the same struggle for true and lasting racial justice. While he hailed the landmark voting reform as “a great step forward in removing all of the remaining obstacles to the right to vote,” he also insisted that the vote be used to “rid the American body politic of racism.” King would instantly recognize the mutually reinforcing objectives of denying the ballot, an indispensable instrument of reform, while also silencing the substantive case for reform by whitewashing the country’s racial past.
Contrary to countless assertions from the right, King did not endorse colorblindness. It wasn’t the remedy for dismantling the ugly realities that white supremacy had produced. Like today’s critical race theorists, King understood that American racism was systemic and demanded systemic remedies. He was forthright in acknowledging that anti-Black racism “was not a consequence of superficial prejudice but was systemic.” Throughout his career, King set his sights on institutional-level change, calling for solutions built on the race-conscious analysis of inequalities across our society.
King invoked a “bank of justice” to be mobilized against the many structures of racial oppression to ultimately realize “the security of justice” for all Americans. This commitment explicitly extended to the mode of race-conscious practice that now goes by the name of affirmative action.
When questioned whether he would support such outlays, King bluntly replied, “I do indeed,” and went on to explain: “Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved and robbed of any wages — potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation.”
Much of King’s legacy may never be taught in public schools, if this manufactured panic that demands critical thinking about racism be expunged from curricula and libraries continues. In North Dakota, for example, King’s understanding of structural racism would contradict the state’s newly minted edict that racism cannot be taught as anything more than an individual’s prejudice and bias. His understanding of the historical debt created by centuries of uncompensated labor flies directly in the face of Oklahoma’s prohibition of material suggesting that current generations bear any responsibility for the actions of their ancestors.
Not only did King clearly recognize that antiracism must address built-in headwinds that unnecessarily disadvantage some groups over others, but so does, incidentally, the Supreme Court, as seen in its many rulings. Yet an instructor seeking to explain King’s expansive vision of justice or a professor highlighting legal cases about institutional discrimination will be in jeopardy if they teach these ideas in some states that have adopted such laws.
King’s ideas could also fall under efforts in states such as Oklahoma or Texas that forbid the use of classroom materials that might create guilt or discomfort in public school students. King’s description of a social order in need of repair would trigger complaints that current generations are made to feel responsible for the sins of our past. New Hampshire, meanwhile, has proposed legislation forbidding antiracist critiques of the nation’s founding and history.
Indeed, under most of these laws, King’s concrete work and documented analysis of racism’s enduring legacy in American society would be suspect. In his final speech, on the eve of his death, he said he might not get to the promised land with us. This prophecy would rest uneasily in curricula that sanction assumptions that we haven’t already become that society that King dreamed we would one day be.
This imposition of a fairy-tale account of America makes King’s sacrifice utterly illegible. It is a memory-holed vision of the past better suited to George Orwell’s dystopian reveries than to a nation seeking to redeem its promise of genuine, expansive and democratic self-rule.
Nationwide, lawmakers are legislating that our schools and workplaces turn away from King’s mandate to make good on the country’s broken promises, and wallow instead in the wages of this ignorance. It is an ignorance that grows out of an earlier effort to impose an approved orthodoxy about the American past. One of the enduring consequences of the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s textbook campaigns was the persistence of Confederate propaganda and Lost Cause mythology masquerading as the truth about the history of the Civil War and its aftermath. The United Daughters ensured that millions of children inherited a view of America’s past grossly warped by the whitewashing of slavery and the violent Redemption, when white Southerners called for a return to white supremacy, that followed Reconstruction. The democratic crisis we face today is an unrecognizable spasm from that past, illegible in part because our educational system and national myths have not overcome these past manipulations to embrace this history.
To truly honor King’s memory, then, we must defeat the faction that facilitated the U.S. Capitol riot, put democracy on life support, and continues to demand that critical interrogation of its past be censored by law. King implored that we put our bodies on the line to face the organized forces of white reaction in his day — and it’s clear that he’d be fighting in exactly the same way to preserve his prophetic legacy in our own day, when the right to equal education, to vote freely and to realize true cross-racial justice are once more under bitter attack.
Reclaiming his legacy is to realize that there is no daylight between a truly democratic society and a racially just one.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is a professor at the Columbia and UCLA law schools and executive director of the African American Policy Forum.
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