Misremembering Martin Luther King Jr's legacy : Code Switch Martin Luther King Jr. was relatively unpopular when he was assassinated. But the way Americans of all political stripes invoke his memory today, you'd think he was held up as a hero. In this episode, we talk about the cooptation of King's legacy with Hajar Yazdiha, author of The Struggle for the People's King: How Politics Transforms the Memory of the Civil Rights Movement.

Everyone from the Tea Party to immigrants rights groups want a piece of Dr. King

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What's good, y'all? You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. So way back in the very early days of CODE SWITCH, in 2013, way before we had a podcast, even, some of my colleagues on the team ran this Twitter feed, back when, you know, it was still called Twitter. That account was named @todayin1963, and the idea behind it was really simple. Every day the account would tweet out news items from newspapers from that same corresponding day but 50 years earlier, in 1963.

And '63 was a really eventful year for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Medgar Evers, the Civil Rights organizer, was gunned down outside of his home in Mississippi by a member of the Klan. Twenty-two Black people, including four school-age girls, were killed when white opponents to desegregation hid a bomb under the steps of their church in Birmingham, Ala. And of course, 1963 also saw what has since become the most famous moment of the Civil Rights Movement, the march on Washington, and specifically Martin Luther King's now iconic speech.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up...

DEMBY: And so just to go back to that 1963 Twitter feed we ran way back then, one of the things that might be surprising to people today was how shook people were about this whole thing back then, and this idea of this huge throng of Black folks descending on D.C. There was all this worry about violence breaking out, that the whole thing would devolve into rioting, all within view of the White House lawn. And so in the lead-up to the march, Washington, D.C.'s police and federal authorities - they were all on high alert. There was even a ban on alcohol sales in D.C. the day of the march. And then the march came, and hundreds of thousands of people who had come to the Capitol to demand full equality under the law - they left peacefully. There were just four arrests, including one of a Nazi counter-protester. I mean, it was really barely any trash left behind, but that frisson of danger - that has been mostly stripped away from the way we tell the story about that day today.

Just a few years later, of course, King would be assassinated at the age of 39. Public opinion polls taken a little bit before his killing showed that only about 1 in 3 people in the United States viewed him favorably. Today, of course, as we all know, he is one of the most celebrated figures in American history. There's a monument to King near the National Mall, where the march was, of course. His birthday is a federal holiday. There are marches on Washington all the time for all sorts of causes, because people of any number of ideological leanings are kind of drafting off of the imagery from that march. You know, you got anti-abortion organizers and pro-Israel rallies and the pink p****hat marches and, and, and, and, and - and many of them are either nodding to or explicitly claiming to be the heirs of Martin Luther King's moral legacy. The comedy writer Ryan Ken posted this viral TikTok video about the way we talk about King today.


RYAN KEN: This is my impersonation of the Martin Luther King that you all quote when you want Black people to shut up. (Impersonating Martin Luther King Jr.) It is me, Martin Luther King Jr., the only civil rights leader who ever lived. I had a dream, and it came true. So the rest of you Negroes can leave it alone now. I'm sure the person who is quoting me to you would have supported me back then as well. Just ask their parents or their grandparents what they thought about me.

HAJAR YAZDIHA: Yes. Oh, my gosh. So Ryan Ken - what a treasure. If you're listening, thank you for being you.

DEMBY: That's Hajar Yazdiha. She's a professor at the University of Southern California and my guest on this episode, and she joked that TikTok could have been the trailer for her recent book.

YAZDIHA: "The Struggle For The People's King: How Politics Transforms The Memory Of The Civil Rights Movement" is really about how the co-optation of Martin Luther King Jr. have taken shape in society. So it's like, everybody and their mother has noted that his words get used out of context...

DEMBY: Right.

YAZDIHA: ...That, you know, they get turned on their head and used for causes he wouldn't even agree with. But Ryan Ken takes this and shows us exactly how it matters in politics. So it's everything from, you know, you've got your liberal Dems saying you got to vote, you know, because Dr. King would have wanted you to, you know, even though it's fundamentally opposed to every sort of shred of morality in your body, all the way up to, you know, the right wing being like Dr. King would oppose affirmative action. He would oppose voting rights. And that is why we must uphold this great leader and follow in his lead. So it's really that story of how he gets taken up and remade and then why it matters for society. That's the story I'm telling in the book.

DEMBY: And one of the things you talk about is that this whitewashing of King and King's radicalism was something that was happening - it was unfolding even when he was alive. So what did that look like back in the 1950s and 1960s?

YAZDIHA: Yeah, I mean, that's one of the big misconceptions is that he got co-opted and sanitized after he was murdered. But really, it's a story that's even taking place while he's out there in the streets doing disruptive protests, this kind of direct nonviolence, you know, the direct action that I think we so often think of as just people holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" - right? - when it was really all about shutting things down and making it impossible to proceed with the status quo. And so even at the time newspapers are covering it, they're kind of writing out the radicalism, or they're playing it up like, you know, he is this kind of arrogant, you know, self-involved kind of man. Even when he appears on the cover of Time as person of the year, Time Magazine writes about him in this way, where there's a kind of critique underlying that talks about how he's, you know, sort of self-important. And I think that that's a piece where, you know, he really understood that the way he was being symbolized really mattered for the public's ability to understand what the Civil Rights Movement was trying to do. So I think that's really one of the pieces that comes out.

DEMBY: You write that Ronald Reagan, who was famously a critic and opponent of King when King was alive - Reagan was, of course, governor of California, a major critic of the Civil Rights Movement - that he ironically played a really big role in the sanitization after King died. How did that go down?

YAZDIHA: Yeah. So this is really, like, the story that begins the book, and it's one I didn't expect. So when I was thinking about how King's been sanitized - this is something I started noticing in the wake of the Tea Party, so this kind of reactionary white lash to Obama's presidency, and I thought that's where the story would begin. And so when I'm doing this research, it's wild to me that then it goes all the way back to this moment we're thinking about the debates over the King holiday. And so this is the 15-year battle to institutionalize a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday that celebrates not just his contributions, but really the Civil Rights Movement's contributions to American national sort of myth and memory and the story of who we are.

And so Reagan, as you said, has completely opposed civil rights, like, he's made it his life's mission to unroll them and make it a matter of individual rights, where you have an individual right to discriminate. And yet, as this political pressure mounts, he knows that the best way to woo white moderates and kind of shut down the Black NAACP resistance to his presidency is to sign this holiday into law. And what's really interesting, Gene, is, you know, there are these letters. If you go back, you can find these letters he wrote to his political allies who were so pissed that he was signing this holiday into law. And they're like, what are you doing?

And he writes these letters and he says, rest assured, we're remembering the selective image of Dr. King. And he assures them that he's not moved on his position on civil rights. He's just going to be celebrating a King that represents colorblind individualism, American exceptionalism, and he's really going to drive home throughout his presidency the story that Dr. King's dream of this colorblind nation has been realized. And so now racism is a matter of the past. It is over, and we can move on.

DEMBY: I mean, it's actually kind of wild to think about this, to think about how immediate and sustain the backlash to almost every single policy victory achieved by the Civil Rights Movement was. Everything has been either rollbacked or reined in. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted by many measures. Our neighborhoods are just as segregated as they were in the 1950s and 1960s. School segregation is still like a defining feature of American education. There are few things as unpopular as equally funding public schools or busing. It's really hard to bring discrimination lawsuits against employers. So, you know, like, I guess I'm curious about why the Civil Rights Movement has remained so powerful a story.

YAZDIHA: Yes. I mean, that's the question, right? And so that's really where - I think about it as the building of what the philosopher Charles W. Mills called the epistemology of ignorance. It means that you choose not to know the roots, the causes, why things are the way that they are. And I often think of it like a kind of collective wearing of glasses that have the wrong prescription. And so, you know, everything's blurry. You cannot make out reality. You don't know where you're going. And I think it's - Charles W. Mills describes it as white people making a world that they themselves don't understand. And so if you build this willful unknowing, then power can keep reproducing itself.

So I think that question of why the Civil Rights Movement is so central to that is - I mean, that's the question of the book, right? And so it takes up this kind of question by thinking about how it is that the Civil Rights Movement represents this kind of make-or-break moment in American society. Are we going to reckon with a country that was founded on the backs of Black Americans? Are we going to reckon with this history of racism, or are we going to act like it is now finished? We got our Voting Rights Act. You know, we got our Civil Rights Act. And now we're good. And that's really what folks in power end up doing, is instead of a real reckoning where we confront the past, instead we kind of put a pin in it and say, all right, we're moving on to the next book.

DEMBY: So to your point about willful unknowing, that almost seems too passive a way to describe these really organized efforts to sanitize the way our history is taught in schools, particularly America's racial history.

YAZDIHA: But I think that's so important because when you think about the misuses of the past, or historical revisionism, or even all the way up to the alt histories that I describe in the book, which are really the dangerous ones that found the great replacement theory, for example - when you think about all of them, they're all rooted in a project where obscuring the past ensures that you can't know the present, and that does require limiting proper historical education. But it also is a process of limiting critical education.

And I think what's so disturbing is when you think about - NPR did this report in 2021 where it was around this moral panic around critical race theory in schools and really about racial education more broadly - God forbid we talk about racism or even antiracism - and they noted that half of the Republican speakers at this press conference use Dr. King's quote, and that was to play up the threat of critical race theory, to say that Dr. King himself would be horrified that we are learning about racism in our schools. And what's wild about that...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

YAZDIHA: Right? What's wild about that is that...

DEMBY: It's so bananas.

YAZDIHA: It's crazy. They are using Dr. King's words to effectively limit education that would teach about Dr. King.

DEMBY: Mmm-hmmm (laughter).

YAZDIHA: Can I just share one more kind of crazy egregious example that I find...

DEMBY: For sure. Of course, of course.

YAZDIHA: ...Hilarious, but I think is worth noting because it kind of shows how far we've come in a really negative way is - I don't know if you remember when Dinesh D'Souza, the crazy right-wing political commentator...


YAZDIHA: ...When he got arrested for campaign finance fraud, and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he tweets out that he is celebrating King's legacy as a fellow jailbird. And he talks about how they're essentially the same person fighting for justice and being targeted by - and this is really crazy - he compares J. Edgar Hoover to Obama. And so...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

YAZDIHA: ...All of a sudden, Dinesh D'Souza is Dr. King. But I think what's wild about that is he himself had opposed civil rights at every turn and was somebody who's trying to overturn multicultural democracy.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm, yeah. King as - he is my fellow - we have the same basket of grievances against society.

YAZDIHA: (Laughter).

DEMBY: So funny. To that point, you start the book with a wild anecdote about the Tea Party and people like Glenn Beck openly claiming to be inheritors of King's mantle.


GLENN BECK: ...And the man who stood down on those stairs and gave his life for everyone's right to have a dream, Martin Luther King. That's what the reflection is all about.

DEMBY: Like, it's laughable, but it's really effective. Like, what are we supposed to do with that?

YAZDIHA: Yeah, one of the big findings in the book is that these right wing co-optation of memory - they're the ones that get represented in the New York Times, you know, and the Wall Street Journal. They are getting the mainstream press coverage because they're so sensationalist. And it moves these misrepresentations to the mainstream. And so there's a story there about media complicity. And it's, like, the story of the grassroots from below who are resisting - for example, that Tea Party Rally to Restore Honor, where Glenn Beck says that they are the ones - the Tea Party has taken up the mantle of the Civil Rights Movement - those resistance from the below are not being represented in the news. I think it's also rooted in this, like I said, larger culture of ignorance where to recognize the resistance from below as legitimate would be to affirm that actually the system is unjust and that there might be something to what these crazy leftists are saying.

DEMBY: Part of the story is King's strategy, this tactic of nonviolence, which allowed for people who are around him, people in the movement, to be painted as almost saintly - right? - to your point about sort of taking away how disruptive it was. And also, like, their use of nonviolence as a strategy - it's more complicated when you know how things work, right? King was often flanked by armed security. Rosa Parks has talked about being a gun owner. Why do you think that we are so attracted to that idea of the saintliness, like, of that movement, as made up of just kind people asking for their rights really politely?

YAZDIHA: Yeah, right? I mean, I think it's really a great way to defang and make it feel like it's impossible for everyday people to reproduce a movement like that. Because if you uphold it as this moral beacon where it's robbed of all of its complexity, all of its internal messiness, and even King's complexity as a human being who was not perfect - you know, he got angry behind the scenes. There are stories of him having a real temper. And all of that gets written out as if he was, like you said, a kind of saintly hero. And as if nonviolence meant purely just marching peacefully, not bothering anybody, and waiting for folks to like you. And I think what's so radical about nonviolence, and what was so radical about King and the Civil Rights Movement, is that it really relies on a long timescape, a real future vision, and it's one that understands that you're not going to necessarily get your gains tomorrow, next month, even next year, but that you still keep going because you believe truly that there is something in the future that will yield the liberation that you seek.

DEMBY: I mean, one of the things that you hear people who are critiquing, you know, contemporary protest movements, say, is when they point back to the Civil Rights Movement, right? There are often a lot of young people kind of dressed really well - right? - dressed, like, in their Sunday best. And you often - I remember this specifically around protest in Ferguson, people pointing to those people as like, see, like, why can't they put a shirt on? Why can't they - you know, like, they're not supporting themselves in the way that they would have done in the '60s, and, you know, obviously missing that a lot of civil rights actions were meant to sort of heighten the distinctions between, you know, the cops siccing German Shepherds on people...


DEMBY: ...And the people who were just, you know, dressed in ties and dresses as they were getting, you know, fire hydrants opened up on them.

YAZDIHA: A hundred percent. I think that's what's wild about especially now when you think about even some of the kind of leftist progressive groups and the way that they deride the respectability politics of the Civil Rights Movement...

DEMBY: Right.

YAZDIHA: ...Is missing that piece where actually it was this really radical means of holding up a mirror to society.

DEMBY: I mean, how do you think the movement and the way that we remember it shapes how we're allowed to process today? And who is allowed to protest today?

YAZDIHA: You notice every single time the folks from below, the oppressed people, show up in the streets, somebody's out here saying, Martin Luther King Jr. would be very disappointed in y'all, and he would not want you to be doing this. You should look to the Civil Rights Movement. And what's wild is that so many times they are pulling these strategies straight from the Civil Rights Movement's playbook. So for example, shutting down highways - this is something we've seen recently in the protests to Gaza war. And, you know, thinking about disruption, you know, boycotting, divestment. I mean, what do people think the Montgomery bus boycott was? And so it is central to the kind of American notion of what protests ought to be. But I want to be really clear that that's a story that's handed down from above, because the people on the ground, the grassroots, are rooted in those legacies, and they understand that this is exactly what protest looks like, and that it is foundational to American democracy.

DEMBY: When we come back...

YAZDIHA: I don't think we should just let him go, because it's only going to get worse if we allow him to be used in the service of shutting down racial education.

DEMBY: That's coming up. Stay with us, y'all.

Gene - just Gene this week - CODE SWITCH. I've been talking to Hajar Yazdiha. She wrote a book about how we talk about Martin Luther King. It's called "The Struggle For The People's King." And like we discussed earlier, King has become pretty central to the story Americans tell ourselves about ourselves. We've talked about Glenn Beck. We've talked about Black respectability politics. But we also got into how King is claimed by other social justice movements, specifically immigrants' rights groups or Muslim Americans organizing against Islamophobia. You know, folks who might be seen as conditionally American.

YAZDIHA: So this is one of the most interesting pieces for me, is thinking about how these groups that are considered outside the bounds of American identity come together and use the memory of the Civil Rights Movement to fight for their rights. Because this is a classic story. So this is called the minority rights revolution. It happens through the '70s into the '80s. And this is where groups like disability rights activists, women, you know, LGBTQ groups - they're coming together and using the tools and the tactics and the language of the civil rights movement to fight for their gains. It's called the like-Black analogy, where you basically claim that your group is like Black people.

DEMBY: Like Black folks. Mmm-hmmm.

YAZDIHA: Yes, yes. And it's really effective. And so, you know, it's had all of these successes. And so you come into the 2000s, and there's this growing immigrant rights movement. And they want to use the same tools. And so one of the more interesting stories is they get the blessing of Black civil rights leaders. And they unroll this nationwide immigrant rights workers freedom ride. And it's really a powerful way where they embody the memory of the Civil Rights Movement because they are visiting these stops of civil rights struggles. The immigrant rights activists are getting off the bus. They are really taking in the full education, the full analogy, that they, too, are experiencing oppression and violence like Black people did.

Now, I think this is really where the struggle comes in, is that too often they are making their claims without realizing that there are Black folks in their midst. There are Black immigrants. There are Black Muslims. And one of the real kind of internal reckonings that happens through this process is realizing that anti-Blackness is this kind of veil that keeps the immigrant communities from seeing their own reflection, from understanding themselves. So it's really in the internal reckoning, the historical education, that they come to see that they are actually in community with and building coalitions with Black people. They are not posed in opposition to them.

So this is where memory can become a bridge. It's not just about remembering history. It's about bringing communities together under this umbrella of, we are all embedded within the past together. It is that interconnected web of mutuality.

DEMBY: What's interesting about that like-Black analogy is that because people use it so often, it reinforces this binary about Blackness and whiteness as sort of like the two organizing realities in the country. And it obscures the genocide of Native Americans, right? Like it's...


DEMBY: ...Like there's all this stuff that sort of gets sort of wiped away. I remember distinctly hearing an Indigenous person - this is back when the Washington football team had a different name, like, saying, look, if they were called the Washington N-Words, everyone would see very clearly what this was. Right? It was sort of doing that, like playing on the legibility of the taboos around certain kinds of anti-Blackness. And you can see why it was effective rhetorically to do that. And you'll also be like, damn, I wish people could actually understand certain oppressions as singular, right?

YAZDIHA: Yes. Black is like Black. I mean, I think that's, you know, one of the problems with the like-Black analogy is also the temporal piece because it positions it as if, you know, Black struggles are over. And so now we are the new Black. And I mean, that's one of the struggles.

DEMBY: I mean, there have been all these big movements that have had lasting consequences for American life. Like the labor movement, for example, right? We don't remember it in the same romantic way that we remember the Civil Rights Movement, even though it had, you know, broadly popular aims. You know, we all go up for a 40-hour workweek, right? Why do you think the Civil Rights Movement is so ever-present in a way that other transformative political movements are not?

YAZDIHA: Yeah, that's a good question. I think it goes back to the question of the meaning of race in America, because the foundational story of America is built on Black enslavement. And so that's what, you know, some scholars call it like a spoiled identity. And so the nation has to contend with its spoiled identity. It has this sinful past, right? And so it needs a story of redemption. And that's what this kind of co-optation, the sanitized whitewashing of the Civil Rights Movement offers, is this story of great redemption, of overcoming, of a kind of, you know, morality that exceeds all else. And I think that's why it's become so central in the American imagination, as opposed to, for example, the labor movement. And I'll also say, you know, the strategic obfuscation of the labor movement is no coincidence. Like...

DEMBY: Right.

YAZDIHA: ...Both don't want people coming together to challenge capital and challenge power from above. So God forbid we remember it.

DEMBY: Right. You said the overcoming is, like, literally, we shall overcome, right? It's like this...


DEMBY: ...You know, part of the sloganeering that people have just assigned to the Civil Rights Movement, you know what I mean? Like, oh, we had this original sin. We have been delivered from it by a speech, I guess, and now we're all good now.

YAZDIHA: Yeah. We overcame. We're done.

DEMBY: But there - it's hard to think about. I mean, there's so many ways in which, because everyone is braiding the story of American redemption - you could argue that it's all cynical, but, like, I remember Barack Obama's acceptance speech. He alludes to...


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma and a preacher from Atlanta who told the people that we shall overcome. Yes, we can.

DEMBY: Like, there is a way that he was very, very literally tying his election to the presidency to King. And, you know, you could have a whole conversation about whether, you know, the head of the American project is, like, naturally in opposition to King, but, like, it was almost like you could feel he was, like, I'm being restrained because I'm not even saying King by name. You know what I mean?


DEMBY: Like, I'm just nodding to a preacher from Georgia. You know what I mean? It's so hard to resist that impulse to just, like, nod to King because he's, like, loomed so large in our, like, moral imagination.

YAZDIHA: Yeah, but, I mean, that was one of these moments that I think most Americans upheld as, like, Dr. King's dream realized. We have a Black president. And I remember all of the think pieces, you know, op-eds, front pages. I would say, like, a bunch of them mentioned Dr. King because this is the real question that we've been facing as Americans, is - was his dream realized? You know, is this colorblind era a realization of his dream? Or is it just a way to kind of hide away the systemic injustice underneath?

And then Obama gives us this answer, and unfortunately - right? - he ends up perpetuating the kind of sanitized King. And his, of course, is not the one that's the right-wing version. It's not the alt history, but it is the kind of rose-colored lenses where he thinks about, you know, Black folks and white folks working together. He's not really attacking the root causes. And the real issue ends up being that he ends up kind of using it to shut down Black dissent from below.

DEMBY: OK, so we're at this place where King is being claimed by everybody on the left. He's being claimed by everyone on the right. He's in a Dodge Ram commercial with Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin of, like - is there an argument that we should just let this dude go, like, for the people who are, like, no, no, we got to remember the radical King. Is there an argument for, like, yo, we've lost that? - that is, like, that reclamation project is over. Like, maybe the brand that's been created around this guy is too far gone. Is there an argument that you buy in that?

YAZDIHA: Yeah. I mean, I think about that a lot. So I think there are two things that are happening, and - so for one, I don't think we should just let him go because it's only going to get worse if we allow him to be used in the service of shutting down racial education, shutting down all kinds of critical education across the country. But at the same time, I think the other phenomenon that we're witnessing is not just reclaiming his radical legacy, but expanding it and thinking about the folks that were written out of the memory of the Civil Rights Movement. So we see this movement to reclaim Bayard Rustin. We see movements to reclaim all of the Black women that were at the forefront - you know, the Ella Bakers, the Fannie Lou Hamers. We're thinking about everybody who was so foundational to the struggle and then also the complexity within it.

And so I think - like, yeah, we could let him go and move on, but I think I see on the one hand a movement to move away from a kind of institutional understanding of civil rights as the only path forward to liberation. And, in fact, the Civil Rights Movement itself didn't think about law as the only path toward liberation. It was just one step. But I think the other piece that's been really prominent is that now they're tying those legacies of the Civil Rights Movement to human rights, to global struggles. And so it's beyond this framework of just American exceptionalism, of just being folded into a system. It's about something much bigger and more visionary.

I really hope one of the big takeaways isn't just that, you know, we have to learn history for history's sake. I really hope one of the big takeaways is that we understand memory as this political project and that we become really curious about why it is that we remember certain things and what they're doing in society. What story are they telling? Who's getting left out? So I think those are the big questions that Dr. King would have wanted us to ask, and also that are the preservations of the real legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.


DEMBY: Hajar Yazdiha is the author of "The Struggle for the People's King: How Politics Transforms The Memory Of The Civil Rights Movement." Doc, thank you for doing this with us.

YAZDIHA: Thank you so much. This was so fun.


DEMBY: All right, y'all. That - that's our show. You can follow us on Instagram at @nprcodeswitch, all one word. If email's more your bag, ours is codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to our newsletter. You can find that at npr.org/codeswitchnewsletter. You can follow the show and get all of our latest episodes on the NPR app or wherever you get your podcasts. And we just wanted to give a quick shout out to our CODE SWITCH+ listeners. We appreciate y'all. We thank you for being subscribers. So when you subscribe to CODE SWITCH+, that means you get to listen to all of our episodes with no sponsor breaks, and it also helps support our show. So if you rock with us, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch.

This episode you're listening to was produced by Jess Kung. It was edited by Courtney Stein and Dalia Mortada. Our engineer was Maggie Luthar. And we would be remiss if we did not shout out the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive. That's Christina Cala, Xavier Lopez, Leah Donnella, Veralyn Williams, Steve Drummond, Julia Carney, B.A. Parker and Lori Lizarraga. As for me, y'all, I'm Gene Demby. Be easy.


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