Martin Luther King probably would have hated what his day has come to represent

A man and his legacy.
A man and his legacy.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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In 1941, historian Dixon Wecter wrote about how much Americans love to have heroes. “Hero-worship answers an urgent American need,” he said connecting this idolatry to patriotism. In many ways I think he was right: whether fictional or historical, we love our superheros, our saviors, our patrons who saves us all. In advance of this Martin Luther King Jr. day, I’ve been thinking a lot about the reverend’s status as a hero of the Civil Rights Movement, especially in the context of other social justice movements. While much deserved, it’s important to interrogate the way we remember our leaders—sometimes to the detriment of the movement as a whole.

Let me be clear: I have no problem with a holiday celebrating Dr. King. I deeply respect the man and his mission, and I think he deserves all the praise and holidays given to him. But I also wonder how the made-for-tv narrative that has become associated with King has impacted the way we look at leadership—especially in the black community. I can’t help but think that this pop version of history has obscured the work of others in the movement, particularly the voices of queer, women, and working class folk.

To some degree, I get it. We need easy narratives and charismatic leaders to tell the story of our movements, to connect with people and bring more into the fold. That’s what powerful leaders are supposed to do. Yet, in America, we don’t simply elevate our leaders to become the face of movement, eventually we make them embody the movement themselves. It’s a burden that no one person needs to carry, or honestly, is able to carry.

But King came with a media friendly message, a message that particularly appealed to—let’s face it—white audiences. His pressed clothes, powerful voice and calls for non-violence made for good sound bites and newsreel footage. For a community plagued by stereotypes and invisibility, it was powerful to have a representative of the people who was accepted by at least some of the nation’s white leaders.

Today, however, it seems like millennials in particular are evolving to a new form of organizing, one that focuses less on hero worship and more on a diffused model of decentralized power. We saw the beginnings of this model with the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago and more recently with Black Lives Matter.

Personally, I love the diffused movement of Black Lives Matter, as much as the media loves to declare it leaderless, as if that was inherently a problem. A range of people with different voices and thoughts and directions, can be considered a kind of democracy. Perhaps younger generations have learned something from the example of president Obama, a man who entered office with lofty ambitions but quickly learned that hope and change don’t exactly come easy in the Beltway.

Whether this newer model of movement will work, however, is another question.

I remember clearly the frustrations of the Occupy Wall Street years—I wanted a leader, a representative. As a storyteller, I wanted to connect to a person and to an idea, and without that it felt like the movement had no real cause or demands. But Black Lives Matter does have demands, and it does have leaders, plural. And I think it is refreshing that the message, and not the individual at the microphone, has become the focal point. Technology has a lot to do with this. Black Lives Matter, at least so far, has embraced the power of multiple voices.

And yet, it’s hard to be a so-called leaderless movement in our very structured society. In a piece for Colorlines earlier this year, scholar Barbara Ransby talked about the notion of an unstructured movement.

Those who romanticize the concept of leaderless movements often misleadingly deploy Ella Baker’s words, ”Strong people don’t need [a] strong leader.” Baker delivered this message in various iterations over her 50-year career working in the trenches of racial-justice struggles, but what she meant was specific and contextual. She was calling for people to disinvest from the notion of the messianic, charismatic leader who promises political salvation in exchange for deference. Baker also did not mean that movements would naturally emerge without collective analysis, serious strategizing, organizing, mobilizing and consensus-building.

Ransby goes on, “Baker was not against leadership. She was opposed to hierarchical leadership that disempowered the masses and further privileged the already privileged.”

I’ll admit it’s hard for me to imagine the Civil Rights movement without King and his speeches. But this weekend, we also need to celebrate the lives of Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, A. Phillip Randolph, and the many, many others who toiled, organized, and fought. Too often we forget that it was indeed a fight.

We must ensure that history remembers the Randolphs, and the Benjamin Mays, and the Mahalia Jacksons and all the others who literally came before King that day on the National Mall. So this Martin Luther King Day let us honor Martin the man, but let us also always remember that movements need messengers. They do not need saints.