Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

The Whitening of Martin Luther King, Jr.


Right before the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, a Harris Poll found that 75% of White respondents and about 50% of Black respondents disapproved of him. White people were turned off by his opposition to the Vietnam War and his support for labor reforms. Black people were dissatisfied that he had not done enough for the cause or was going the wrong direction. In the wake of his murder, Nixon would be elected and the Black Panthers would be on the rise.

White Americans prefer the MLK of August 28, 1963, who marched on Washington. But it is only the last part, the impromptu part, the part urged by Mahalia Jackson, when she shouts to him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” We only remember the sweeping end of the sermon. That famous soundbite found at the speech’s end is an aspirational bromide: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And White conservatives say to themselves and Black America, “This is enough. I accept this dream. Haven’t I done enough? Aren’t you satisfied?”

We ignore earlier when King cries out,

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

There is today a White Evangelical, conservative, nationalistic upsurge to erase even the question of “When will you be satisfied?” The bugbear and cultural panic of Critical Race Theory, a technical and once-obscure legal framework for understanding systemic racism in the justice system at the graduate school level, has been purposely misappropriated and misinterpreted to erase and whitewash the awful truths of American history. Anti-CRT propaganda seeks to whitewash American history and to whiten the legacies of Black Americans who fought for change. States are rewriting their school curricula to whiten and brighten their own identities even further. The governments seek to make their white populations more comfortable with themselves, to create entire schools that remain comfortable with the imaginary past of when America was “great” and had no such troubles.

Focusing solely in MLK’s Dream is to whiten him, to make him palpable to white audiences by focusing solely on something that can be easily and readily shared: a dream. A dream that remains safely in one’s mind and spirit. A dream that can be remembered and agreed upon, but never put into practice or reality. Dreams are so much more pleasant than the real-life nightmares of police brutality, economic inequity and inequality, and generational marginalization and exclusion.

White America wants to remain in that hot Washington August in 1963 when it was in most agreement with King, when King seems more like ourselves, more like where we think we want to be. White Christians don’t want to be in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, just a few months earlier in April. From a Birmingham jail, he writes,

I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Will the White Evangelical erase this essential, provocative letter from our necessary collective history in the name of saving the church and the children from the uncomfortable truths of White Christian apprehension and denial? Will the “White moderate” look distastefully upon Black Lives Matter and say that direct action and cries for justice against police brutality, against the squelching of voting rights, against the willful ignorance and denial of a nation’s own racist history and legacy goes too far?

King is the only Black member of the broader White Church and only so much as he shall be tolerated. Only his Dream is allowed inside, only the younger King and only so much. The segregation we see now in White churches is the erasure and ignorance of the Black Church. What has truly changed since King’s observation about Christianity in America?

Until White America can fully acknowledge and implement the admonitions, direct action, and full legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., White America will continue to whiten him in its own image so that it may remain comfortable with merely a holiday in January and an inspiring paragraph that comforts their own sense of character.

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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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