Dr. King and Collective Liberation

Portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. By Betsy G. Reyneau. United States National Archives and Records Administration, Donated Collections Record Group 200.

This week, we remember Martin Luther King Jr., the renowned civil rights leader and Christian minister who promoted racial equity, desegregation, and Black liberation through nonviolence. Dr. King was born January 15, 1929, and died April 4, 1968, at age 39. This day has been observed in various communities since the 1970s and became a national holiday in 1986.

Dr. King was a prolific writer and orator, sharing his message of Black liberation from race supremacy in every form he could. His message resonated deeply with Black Americans, but Dr. King was well aware that the injustices and violence of white supremacy affected more than African Americans. In his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait, he explains that “for too long the depth of racism in American life has been underestimated…yet to focus upon the Negro alone as the “inferior race” of American myth is to miss the broader dimensions of the evil.” He continues:

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society … We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.”

Obviously, the work of Dr. King and other civil rights activists is far from finished. The scourge of White supremacy is alive and well, as anyone who experiences a racialized identity in this country knows. King rightfully points to the colonial American attitudes toward Native people as the starting place for White supremacy in the United States. The settlers of this country chose to ignore any moral inklings of human rights or dignity as they strode across our lands, claiming everything in front of them as their own and utilizing every means to eliminate our ancestors who stood in their way. It was this same attitude that permitted the colonizers to enslave millions of African people and their descendants, exploiting their lives for personal profit. These similar experiences with colonialism and the unrelenting desire for sovereignty and liberation bind us with our Black relatives as we live the story of America.

As we reflect on the work of Dr. King and the connections to Native people (detailed more in this article), we have the opportunity to deepen our own antiracism. Antiracism is the notion that being “not racist” is simply not enough to address the systemic racism that persists in America. American University professor and author Ibram Kendi has written on this idea, including in the book How to be Antiracist. This interview of Dr. Kendi is a great starting place for learning more about antiracism. He says, “Individuals are either part of the forces that are challenging racist power, or are knowingly or unknowingly supporting it.” While it’s true that the vast majority of Americans do not identify as White supremacists or are members of the KKK, the work of collective liberation is active – starting with the ways we work to identify our own internalized racism, and continuing into how we challenge racist policies that maintain power for White people at the expense of everyone else.

It has been 54 years since Dr. King was taken from us by violence and cowardice. But the work he nurtured is ever-present. May we take his work into our own hearts, and recognize that collective liberation, and communities built on mutual sovereignty, interdependence, and respect, are the only healthy ways forward for our species.

Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.

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