This week we pause to celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If he had not been assassinated 53 years ago by a white supremacist, Dr. King would have celebrated his 92nd birthday on January 15th. In his short 39 years on the planet, he made an indelible mark on the United States and the world. His voice, his work, and his vision remain as an example of the power and potential of liberatory theology applied in the context of American democracy.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber has picked up where King left off, reinvigorating King’s Poor People’s Movement in 2018, fifty years after King’s murder. Like King, Barber continues to build a multiracial coalition determined that elected officials use the wealth of the nation to improve the lives of our most marginalized citizens. It is encouraging to see King’s vision for America—his Dream—being carried forward today.
This year’s observance of the King holiday takes on special meaning as we prepare to witness the inauguration of Sen. Kamala Harris as Vice President of the United States, who carries with her a list of “firsts.” She will be the first woman to hold the office, as well as the first person of African, Caribbean, and South Asian descent in the post. She will also be the first graduate of a Historically Black University to hold the office. All of these are reasons for celebration and are encouraging signs that King’s dream of a more inclusive and equitable America is still alive.
The beauty of this moment, however, is overshadowed by the specter of racial violence of the same variant that took the life of Dr. King. The attempted insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6th was fueled in large part by White supremacist angst, the flames of which have been fanned by Donald Trump since he amplified the “birther” campaign against then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Now soon-to-be former President Trump, in yet another conspiracy theory, claims that the 2020 electoral results are false, that he actually won a second term, and that the presidency is being stolen from him. He has persisted in these claims while unable to produce any evidence in court or any other venue. That has not stopped him or his followers, and it resulted in the deadly attack on January 6th that took the life of a Capitol Police officer.
Ahead of the inauguration, in an abundance of caution, the nation’s capital has been turned into a militarized zone with 25,000 National Guard troops roaming the core of the city and the FBI having to deeply vet law enforcement and troops there for white supremacist sympathies. The last time Washington, DC, experienced this level of militarization was, ironically, in the days following King’s assassination when 13,000 troops were ordered to the city. The time before that was 1861 before the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as the nation stood on the brink of a civil war.
The through-line of these instances of brutality is the deadly combination of White violence in the service of the idea of White supremacy. In 1861, Southern Whites launched what would become the bloodiest war in American history to preserve White supremacy in the form of chattel slavery. The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. was the crescendo of White supremacist violence of the civil rights era, including economic reprisals, voter disenfranchisement, lynchings, beatings, and assassinations.
In January 2021, we are faced with yet another manifestation of White supremacist violence, this time predicated on fears that White people are losing their majority and thereby their historic control of the nation’s government. While media commentators have read these behaviors through many lenses—economic anxiety, lack of college education, and other frameworks—history demonstrates that this is yet another articulation of White supremacist ideology. Examining these behaviors through the lenses of race and history, these patterns become clearer. This is the subject of Carol Anderson’s book White Rage: The Untold Truth of Our Racial Divide, which follows the trajectory of both anti-Black violence and anti-Black policy from Reconstruction through the Obama years. White rage, Anderson argues, is triggered by Black advancement, and conversely the sense by whites that they are losing power. Such behavior, at its core, is inconsistent with our ideal of a multiracial, multiethnic democracy. These two warring ideologies cannot stand together.
White supremacist violence in American history is persistent, consistent, regrettably unsurprising. If we are going to stop future manifestations, it is incumbent upon us to address it head-on and at its root. The way to honor the life of Dr. King is to acknowledge and ultimately destroy the ideological roots of the violence that took his life. White supremacy is a cancer that must be addressed if we are ever to achieve a just and fair society.