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Why a viral meme of Martin Luther King Jr. is disrespectful

The meme is an example of how a man who stood for so much is still so grossly misappropriated

Last week, while cities nationwide erupted in furor following George Floyd’s murder at the knee of former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin, a meme went viral featuring a photo of Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy and other civil rights marchers with the caption “This Is A Protest” atop a photo of looting in Minneapolis reading, “This Is A Crime.”

This is all while the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Floyd, at the hands of policemen and vigilantes, held black America’s consciousness hostage. In the midst of a pandemic claiming over 100,000 American lives, with a special perversion for black life. The comparison isn’t just historically inaccurate.

The meme further paints the human rights icon in a light that is, at best, a disrespectful attempt at respectability politics. At worst, it plays into the conservative misdirection of who King was and what he stood for.

“It would be great if folks were as zealous about evoking my father to eradicate racism,” Bernice King, King’s daughter, tweeted, “as they are about evoking him to criticize how people respond to racism.”

Bernice King’s assessment is searing because the impact is far deeper than a picture. Those who loathed King a half-century ago champion him in death when it’s beneficial. Two-thirds of Americans in a 1966 Gallup poll disapproved of King’s actions. Near the end of the 1960s, he stood as one of the two most hated black men in America along with Muhammad Ali, both of whom were staunch, anti-Vietnam War advocates. This year, the FBI wished King a happy birthday on Twitter — yes, the same FBI that dubbed him “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation” and demanded he commit suicide. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in 2018, sang the praises of King, though Coretta Scott King once wrote a letter opposing Sessions’ 1986 nomination as a federal judge. Whitewashing King’s legacy isn’t America’s original sin, but it is a direct descendant of it.

The image in question of King and others originates from “Bloody Sunday,” where protestors, in March 1965, attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Black folks were protesting for the right to vote, but they were met with violence. Future congressman John Lewis had his skull cracked. James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister who participated in the march, was beaten by a group of white men and later died of his injuries.

Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers a speech to a crowd of approximately 7,000 people on May 17, 1967, at University of California, Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Five months later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, but “Bloody Sunday” was the last major southern protest that gained comprehensive support from whites beyond the south.

Yet, just because that landmark piece of legislation was passed doesn’t make the meme accurate. Look no further than the peaceful protests throughout history. Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, four years after John Carlos and Tommie Smith in Mexico City, held their own Olympic protest in the 1972 Games in Munich. They refused to stand for the national anthem, leading to vehement criticism in America and a lifelong ban from the International Olympic Committee. In more modern times are the peaceful demands of justice for Floyd — or how Colin Kaepernick was exiled from the NFL for speaking on the exact issue that sparked protests and riots worldwide. Like King, he was dubbed a troublemaker and threat to the reality of the power structure he bucked against.

History has shown, repeatedly, peaceful protests aren’t normally respected until a more violent second option is presented. Then it’s one part of society asking how tensions got here — with the other saying because they were never listened to. The truth is, and King understood this point, America would rather ignore the question, “How should we protest?” than vocalize the answer that would force a country to its ugliest sins in the mirror. The night King was killed, riots in over 100 cities erupted across America. A year before he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, he’d deliver the quote that would come to define the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; Minneapolis and so many other cities in between.

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots,” King said in his 1967 “The Other America” speech. “In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?”

America has taken umbrage on the manner black America responds to injustice and does so in a way that’s critical, and always judgmental. With the looting in Minneapolis, massive media attention was placed on chain businesses located in black areas that were destroyed, in particular an area Target. Journalist Camille Squires noted in an article on Mother Jones: “Target isn’t ‘ours’ in any substantive way. AutoZone isn’t some cherished neighbor, saving us from bad alternators and racism.” Employing black folks in low-income jobs while keeping the positions of power away from these communities is a foolproof looting method disguised as progressive economics.

Historically, one side profits while the other suffers.

King understood that society would always fetishize and demean the explosion that is black angst, despair and hopelessness. But rarely, if ever, would it acknowledge its own sins that created the bomb.

“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being,” he wrote in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. “I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.”

The meme that Bernice King rebuked is but one of many examples of how a man who stood for so much and died for so many, a half-century after his assassination, is still so grossly misappropriated. Attempting to misdirect Martin Luther King Jr. by shortchanging him with captioned images that his own words specifically debunk isn’t paying homage at all. As long as America postpones justice, King once said, this country embraces the opportunity for riots over and over again. That’s the real caption.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.