Remembering MLK and the dangers of social activism

It was 49 years ago today that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while standing on a balcony at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Considered to be one of the greatest leaders during the Civil Rights movement, King helped shape the narrative of this country through speeches and protest in an effort to change the treatment of black people.

Since that time, there have been many leaders and activists who have helped pick up that torch, yet the community has not seen another leader of his magnitude at the forefront of the social justice movement.

But why is that so?

As an activist and outspoken member of the black community, I can attest that the fear is real. As one can probably tell, given the current racial climate in America, there are people whose sole mission is to silence us and even end our lives. Every time I wrote an article in protest of the murders of unarmed black folk at the hands of police officers, for example, I’ve been met with borderline threatening messages, and at times, it can be quite scary.  

It was a few weeks ago that a white man traveled all the way from Baltimore to New York and killed Timothy Caughman simply because he was black. If there are folks out here killing us just because of the color of our skin, the threat to those of us who are more vocal becomes that much more real.

In 2015, Black Lives Matter activist Taurean Brown said that he “didn’t fear death” after information came out that the Department of Homeland Security was doing surveillance on the organization’s members. During the Civil Rights Era, programs like COINTELPRO ordered surveillance on the likes of Malcolm X, Medgar, and King. The federal government sought to silence activists who tried to deter the actions of domestic terrorism. The problem with this tactic, however, is that there was no clear definition of who is a domestic terrorist nor a distinction between one who has political activity versus criminal activity.

“I’m not looking forward to [death]. I’m not encouraging it, but I don’t fear it,” Brown told Alternet. The only thing I do fear is that my personal involvements will affect my loved ones. So, I must worry about those kinds of things.” He even went as far as setting up protections for himself like not discussing his loved ones, his relationship status, or even where he lives.

The threat of death at the hands of vigilante citizens against activists and even law enforcement is part of the complex landscape of black activism. King was the most known and celebrated, but the deaths of Malcolm, Medgar, and even President John F. Kennedy were warning signs that death was waiting for anyone who dared to be a catalyst for major social change. These assassinations could also explain why no one else has ever risen to the level of King since he was assassinated almost 50 years ago.

Since that time, however, we’ve had some leaders move into places of prominence, but they have never been seen as a “threat” per se to the status quo. Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson come to mind when we think of those activists who came in the gap from the ’70s to the 2000s. However, their controversial politics and assimilation into whiteness might also be their saving grace.

As leaders in the black community, they were very vocal about the changes needed for us to attain equal rights as U.S. citizens. However, they were also very vocal about things they didn’t agree with within our community and served as allies to capitalism and whiteness, which by many could be pandering on both sides. “Bury the N-word” comes to mind as a movement that could be such. There are many within the black community who don’t agree with the use of N-word, which is valid, but there are also many who feel it is a term of empowerment. This type of activism is much safer, as it removes the threat to whiteness and, in a sense, bolsters the idea that respectability politics will save us.

So, for those us who aren’t as respectable, we become targets. Activist Deray Mckesson comes to mind

when you look at someone whose intersections of blackness and queerness make him fall outside the line of being respectable regardless of how he operates. When asked if he feared for his safety, he responded: “I know that people want us to be too afraid to act, and I will never be afraid to tell the truth. I’ve had a movie theater evacuated because I’ve received a death threat. I received a death threat against my family and myself, recently. The FBI has visited my house. So, I think about it, but I will not let it change my commitment to this work.”  

McKesson and the dedicated activists like him know much like their predecessor, Dr. King, the threat of violence is out there, but that threat cannot be a deterrence to the work that needs to be done.

Today, we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, to not only acknowledge his untimely death but celebrate his historic life that was taken far too soon. For many of us, we too could be met with the same fate as Dr. King for our passionate activism. Knowing that, we also understand that if in our death there is meaningful impact and progress, it was well worth the fight.

George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for EBONY.com, TheGrio, JET, Pride.com, Thebody.com, and The Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.