Donald Riddle | Brown University
On November 1, 1975, William C. Sullivan, former Assistant Director, Domestic Intelligence Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation claimed that "from late 1963 and continuing until the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., King was the target of an intensive campaign by the F.B.I. to neutralize him as an effective civil rights leader.”
This statement, pulled directly from King’s file at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, lends insight to the life of the activist and scholar before his transition to martyrdom; To the F.B.I., the United States Government, and undoubtedly most non-Black citizens, Dr. Martin Luther King was a terrorist. A war was waged against him, one in which “no holds were barred,” according to Sullivan. Indeed, the remainder of the Bureau’s manuscript details an investigation as to whether or not the Feds had a hand in King’s death; a claim that should find little contest given the country’s historical treatment of other Black empowerment groups (e.g. The Black Panthers), despite King's comparable pacifism.
Regardless of a mouth that gave an order, a finger that pulled a trigger, or an eye turning blind to the injustice that fell upon Dr. King and - consequently - much of Black America, we attempt to find solace in a holiday devoted to the civil rights hero. Statues have been erected, speeches have been delivered, and an abundance of elementary school projects have been completed. Surely, we are not the same country in which King died — a conclusion, which would allow our collective moral conscience to rest easily. Unfortunately, that's not the case.
On the morning of Monday, January 15th, Ivanka Trump tweeted in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. The Twitter community, responsive as ever, was quick to slam Ivanka, rebuking the first daughter’s silence when it came to her father’s own blatant racism.
Ivanka Trump's tweet about MLK, and the holiday surrounding his legacy.
One Twitter user even went so far as to quote the late activist in her criticism: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it.”
Even on Twitter, it’s hard to argue with words so wise, especially when they ring so poignantly at a time of unrest. In truth, the Trump administration has based its dealings firmly in racialized judgments and attitudes, making more pronounced the color line that has served to divide the country for years. Still, as complicit as Ivanka might be, so too is every other individual, especially those who are white; and calling out a bigger racist than oneself does not, and will never, suffice in eradicating that complacency.
King was a martyr, speaking both eloquently and ardently for the racial equity of his country. Up until the time that he was viciously killed by a hateful murderer, his words and visions were seen as a threat. King; a terrorist waging war upon the purportedly great social order in America.
Now, nearly fifty years later, to the day, his legacy is more often used as a protective shield from the truth: not that much has changed. Today the street is riddled with Kings, Black folks following in the very footsteps left behind by MLK and other civil rights heroes. These folks are the very same folks to have perpetuated the Black Power movement, Say Her Name, and of course the formation of the international activist movement Black Lives Matters; these are the very same folks who have been called terrorists, racists, and anarchists in their resistance to complacency. These are the very same folks who have been beaten, imprisoned, shot, and otherwise abused by this nation.
There is no denying that Ivanka is complicit, but it is then equally as true that more than half this country is complicit as well. When the words and actions of Black activists are taken seriously before they become a hashtag, complacency might end; when the Kings of today can engage in civil disobedience with the promise of change as opposed to death, then will the legacy of King Jr. persist. Martin Luther King Jr. day is, quite literally, the very least our country can do in its attempts toward justice. To actually honor that day, however, to engage in an activism that goes beyond complaining and achieves actionability, we must do more. We must abandon the illusion of comfort, stop treating King as a mascot for what we hope America to be, and begin building that vision ourselves.