White comfort and the whitewashing of Martin Luther King Jr.

Anti-racism requires accountability and action.


The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that peaked in June 2020, which were sparked by the police killings of Black Americans, racial inequality is at the forefront of white Americans’ minds—as we have the privilege of only being compelled to think about racism and police violence when it appears on the news. 

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we must consider King’s true message of equality—and the unfortunate whitewashing of it—that has been largely forgotten, which has allowed his message to be used to make white Americans comfortable for the role we play in upholding racism.

One of Martin Luther’s central teachings was peace and nonviolence. However, reducing his work and life to this one message is negligent in honoring his legacy. King spoke extensively throughout his public career about the necessity of resisting laws that are unjust and about income and wealth inequality. 

King spoke of poverty and the necessity for an equitable economy in his speech titled “To the Southern Christian Leadership Conference” held in Atlanta, Georgia in 1967. “One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.”

In 1968, according to a Harris Poll, King had a public disapproval rating of almost 75%. William Sullivan, head of the FBI’s domestic intelligence division from 1961 to 1971, said of King, “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous [Black man] of the future in this Nation.” 

During his life, King was a divisive figure, hated by most of the white American public for his views about economic and racial equality. During the Civil Rights movement, white Americans were supporters of equality, yet not the many peaceful steps Civil Rights activists took to reach it, leaving them comfortable with segregation, and content to stand by as Black Americans were being targeted by severe racism. 

In a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” King said of these moderates, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice. who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”

We must teach, just as seriously, King’s message of the harm that centrism and inaction causes as seriously as we teach his message of love and peace. If we truly intend to be anti-racist, we must ask ourselves why we believe change should come slowly, and why we believe it’s necessary to appease racists in the name of a compromise and orderwhen our inaction and complacency can cost lives, and already has.

King said he wanted to live in a world where man was “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” but it will take work and action to achieve this reality. This particular quote that white Americans often use to reduce Martin Luther King Jr’s life and teachings to, does not highlight what is essential to anti-racism: accountability.