The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nikole Hannah-Jones surreptitiously quoted MLK to show how radical some would find him today

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones in December. (Robert Bumsted/AP)
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After Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones used the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in a speech commemorating the life of the civil rights icon, historians are saying the discomfort she caused is indicative of how muddled the late leader’s stances have become over the years.

King’s legacy has been diluted to the point where even he wouldn’t recognize it, the King scholars said, underscoring how White authorities have used the civil rights leader for political prowess and how the United States is uncomfortable with inconvenient facts.

King, who was killed in 1968, wasn’t widely revered as the leader people know today, but was depicted as a “charlatan,” “demagogue” and “traitor,” Hannah-Jones pointed out in her speech, which the elite Union League Club of Chicago hosted Monday.

Hannah-Jones told the audience that Black people in the United States can’t achieve justice without radical structural change, noting that the “evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and racism.”

“The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation,” she said in a tweet thread that relayed some of her speech. “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance.”

The first half of her speech, she eventually told the crowd, had not been her words, but excerpts from King’s work, with the word Negro swapped for Black to not tip off the difference in period-accepted verbiage.

Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina in Chicago, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that he gave the invocation for the event, and that he was delighted by Hannah-Jones’s speech.

He sat at a front table with Hannah-Jones, he said, and periodically surveyed the crowd. Many in the predominantly White, educated and professional crowd appeared shocked and uncomfortable, he said.

“She spoke truth and things that also certainly they did not know in general … that makes you wrestle with what you’ve been taught,” he said, adding that he gave her a verbal pat on the back when she finished her speech. “That, I believe, is our job as truth tellers.”

The “1619” author said on Twitter that she scrapped her original speech when she learned that some members of the group hosting the event leaked emails opposing her speech and said she wasn’t “fit” to speak in honor of King’s legacy, labeling her as a “discredited activist,” she said.

Other King quotes she used were about enslaved people coming to the United States in 1619, capitalism’s role in democracy and the prioritization of military power over social programs. The quotes were far from the “I have a dream” speech that is often quoted by people across the political spectrum.

That realization left many in the audience “shook,” she said on Twitter.

“I left them with this: People who oppose today what [King] stood for back then do not get to be the arbiters of his legacy,” she posted. “The real Dr. King cannot be commodified, homogenized, and whitewashed and whatever side you stand on TODAY is the side you would have been back then.”

Hannah-Jones was unavailable to discuss the speech with The Post, her publicist said.

The moment that Hannah-Jones provided Monday has “opened a lot of eyes and ears to recognize the issues that were being fought during the movement in the 50s and 60s still exist today,” Union League Club of Chicago President John L. Donnelly said in a statement.

Donnelly confirmed that the announcement of Hannah-Jones’s appearance brought criticism, but said that feedback from her speech has been mostly positive, with members saying they were invigorated to do more.

Much of The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s activism is misunderstood, even by some who seek to honor him. (Video: The Washington Post)

King’s legacy was diluted and co-opted in a way that would not happen for other civil rights leaders, scholars told The Post.

One moment that Hannah-Jones pointed out in her tweets was about President Ronald Reagan fighting to have King recognized for a national holiday, but using an eventual proclamation as a way to make him a symbol of colorblind progress.

Before he made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday, Reagan spoke of King’s desire to not exclude anyone from the American Dream. He also made King an emblem of American progress instead of the “drum major for justice” he actually was, according to Lerone Martin, faculty director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.

Reagan’s holiday declaration was an easy win for the president, Martin said, because many in his Republican Party saw it as an opportunity to gain credibility among communities of color as the party faced backlash for how its policies were hurting marginalized groups.

The muddling of King’s thoughts and teachings are a byproduct of how the country teaches history in the lens of progress, Martin said. He highlighted oft-cited talking points of integration policy and enslaved people being freed.

“Our education system is teaching that progress is inevitable, and change rolls in on wheels of inevitability,” he said. “The historian who is worth her weight, she understands that history is about telling stories about history is sometimes uncomfortable. … King warned us about a backlash.”

Learning about who the real King is has been difficult because people in power have sought to neutralize his image for their own political interests, said Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies who is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

McKinney said Hannah-Jones’s speech was ingenious because the criticism it elicited demonstrates how disconnected people are from King’s stances.

McKinney said the King who’s celebrated by corporations, discussed in schools and quoted by misguided politicians is one akin to a “toothless, peace-loving Black action hero” or a “Black Santa Claus” instead of the fierce social critic he was, especially on issues of poverty, white supremacy and militarization.

“If we can defang his message, if we can confine the civil rights movement to a very specific moment in American history from 1955 to 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. is dead, we can say we had the civil rights movement and say we fixed it all,” he said. “All the while, knowing full well we have not.”

His views were not welcomed by all at the time, said Soyica Colbert, professor of African American Studies and Performing Arts at Georgetown University.

Colbert said it’s hard to make the statement that King was popular when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, during a campaign for workers rights that spanned race and class.

“There’s a very different representation than the feeling at the time,” she said. “Nikole Hannah-Jones’s speech was an opportunity for us to see these historical contexts in a greater fullness.”

An architect of critical race theory warns of civil rights being 'packed up and put away for storage'

Hannah-Jones’s work, she said, allows the public to look at history with more nuance. The 1619 Project — which has been criticized in right-leaning circles that led to bans on critical race theory in places where instruction about the intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism probably would not have seen the light of day — confronts people to wrestle with their actions and thoughts.

Criticism of the fact that the early United States was built by slavery and not just as a formation of a free nation in response to British rule, Colbert said, doesn’t diminish the truth of both contributing factors.

“If people find that history offensive, one thing we can do today is be less racist,” she said. “That’s the remedy for what parts of our past we don’t like. We can be better in this moment.”

Hannah-Jones said in her Twitter thread that she hopes people educate themselves more about King’s work.

“If you haven’t read, in entirety, his speeches, you’ve been miseducated and I hope that you will,” she said on Twitter.

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