The King you know never existed. He is a fraud. An imposter.
This King was manufactured. He was designed to validate and preserve the status quo. To mislead and pacify. He is a device. An ornament. An instrument. An abstraction.
He is an assassin. The King you know was sent from the future to slay his namesake, the living and breathing MLK. To bury his meaning. To decontextualize the movement that produced him. To smother the democracy for which he fought.
But the phony King does not stop there. He looks forward as well as backward. He actively suppresses emerging challenges to the dominant order. He disrupts, dilutes, and discredits rebellion. I am telling you this King works hard.
Who is this bogus King? This servant of the powerful?
You know this guy. He is the poster child for the American Way. He is a pitchman for Uncle Sam.
This King pats the nation on the back. He assures us that we are kind and good. A compassionate people. A glorious society.
This King affirms the decency of our democracy. He is our alibi. Our star witness. Sure we committed genocide. Sure we enslaved. Sure we Jim Crowed. But then we had a dream, and our sins were washed away.
Toward a more perfect union. The fulfillment of the egalitarian creed. The notion that bigotry is a regrettable but dwindling feature of our national character. That is what the concocted King represents.
Triumph over racism. Look how far we have come! Progress, ladies and gentlemen. Western progress. The march of civilization. The Enlightenment. Imperialism. Colonialism. White supremacy. All part of the relentless forward thrust.
We are beyond race now. We even had a black president. No more complaining, Colored people! What more could you possibly want?
Never mind that unemployment remains at crisis levels in African American communities.
Never mind that you lack healthcare or affordable education or decent housing or a chance to share meaningfully in the prosperity of American society. We shall overcome. Someday.
King the dreamer. The gentle prophet. The cuddly King. The King that does not scare white folks. The King that inspires us to do community service. Take in a speech.
The comforting King. As long as you are not a Southern redneck with a buzzcut, a German Shepherd, and a fire hose, you are alright! No need to uproot structural racism. No need to confront the historical experience that has left the average white family with twelve times the wealth of the average black family.
The colorblind King does not dwell on the past. He gets over it. This King no longer even SEES race. This is the ALL Lives Matter King.
This King symbolizes America’s stride toward racial reconciliation. This King wants us to intermingle, to get along. This is the diversity workshop King.
No need to agitate. No need to demonstrate. If you do march, please stay on the sidewalk. Remain in the Free Speech zone. Never block traffic. Never raise your voice. Never break the peace. King, after all, was a P-E-A-C-E-F-U-L man.
Do not disrupt. Do not disturb. Do not antagonize. Stay in your place.
Pull up your pants. Enunciate. Smile. Don’t be too ghetto. Try to be less queer. King is watching you. Judging you. Policing you.
The nonviolent King. The serene King. The docile King. Do you not understand what “nonviolence” has come to mean? Why do you think of resistance? Why do you picture opposition to the violence of white supremacy, the violence of police terror, the violence of hunger and poverty? No. Nonviolence means good Negroes comporting themselves properly. Never rupture the façade of tranquility. Never misbehave.
And for god’s sake, never look overseas. Never mention our nation’s failure to pursue nonviolence in Iraq or Afghanistan or any of the seven or so nations we are bombing at the moment. The faux King is a patriot. By this we mean that he never questions U.S. foreign policy. He knows that patriotism means compliance. He knows what is good for him.
The synthetic King is a pleasant character. A beloved icon. He never links racial justice and peace. He never condemns U.S. imperialism. He has got none of the hang-ups of the real King.
That King had some nerve. He was a nuisance, really. He believed the Vietnamese actually wanted self-determination. He could not see that our enemies were just Communist dupes. He said the arms race and the Vietnam War were siphoning money from antipoverty programs. He said the U.S. faced “spiritual death.” He identified America as the aggressor. He called us “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” He said we were on “the wrong side of a world revolution.”
Could he not see our inherent virtue? Could he not see the democracy our bombs were spreading?
The invented King is much more agreeable. He is a consensus figure—not divisive at all. He brings us together. The white and the black. The rich and the poor. He does not speak the shrill language of redistribution. He does not expose corrupt power.
Indeed, he ignores altogether the question of economic exploitation. In this sense, he is quite superior to the flesh-and-blood King. THAT King linked materialism, militarism, and white supremacy. THAT King launched a Poor People’s Movement to combat the twin injustices of race and class. THAT King demanded decent jobs or a guaranteed income for all. THAT King attempted to craft an alliance of workers, the unemployed, poor people, and welfare recipients to invade Washington and force a reorganization of our political and economic structures.
Sounds like class warfare, doesn’t it?
Truth is, the original King was quite radical. He was forged by a fundamentally working-class mass movement—a broad, sustained, politically diverse insurgency. That movement was never welcomed by the nation’s majority as a natural extension of our liberal tradition. Indeed, it was bitterly resisted every step of the way, just like every other quest for democratic transformation in American history.
A strong tendency within the black freedom struggle had long recognized the connection between capitalism and racial oppression. Its members saw white supremacy as rooted in the quest to extract profit at home and abroad. They never accepted the bourgeois emphasis on moral suasion, gradualism, and quiet lobbying. They never saw changing white attitudes or diversifying elite institutions as defining goals.
They understood whiteness as a historical project of domination and expropriation. They knew American abundance was predicated on black poverty. They advanced an expansive vision of human dignity, including the right to bargain collectively, the right to be free from police brutality, and the right to a planned economy with comprehensive public services for all.
This political current helped make King. Helped politicize and galvanize him. Helped drive him beyond his petty bourgeois notions about the need for respectability and moral uplift of the poor. Helped compel him to express more openly and forcefully the ideals of democratic socialism that he had harbored for much of his adult life, and that had smoldered in the imagination of black laborers for generations.
I am sure you realize by now why the original King was so dangerous. He had become a threat to the legitimacy of our capitalist system. You can understand why a counterfeit version—a King 2.0—had to be developed.
Next year the mythical King turns 50, having been born precisely at the moment of the historical King’s 1968 assassination. That means he has lived more than a decade longer than the initial King. In a way he has proved more influential.
So as we celebrate Black History Month, let us remember ALL our icons—even the fabricated ones. Let us recognize the tireless efforts of the artificial King (and, indeed, the ersatz Rosa Parks) to encourage political acquiescence and accommodation. And let us respond accordingly.
Russell Rickford is an Associate Professor of History at Cornell University and author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination (Oxford, 2016).