Some Thoughts on Misquoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. found at PBS.

According to activist and online pundit Ibram X Kendi, Dr. Martin Luther King would have supported all of the inclusive and representation initiatives including Critical Race Theory popular today.

From the Grio article 7 inconvenient truths white people must understand about Martin Luther King Jr, white people, including old school liberals and even conservatives, often misquote or only partially quote Dr. King, ignoring his full statement and context.

Yes, I’m saying this on Martin Luther King Day. Dr. King has been considered a “safe” black person of fame to quote for whites because it makes it seem as if there are no barriers or hurdles between whites and people of color, or at least none that Dr. King acknowledged. Apparently, that’s far from the truth.

From the above cited article:

“I’ve heard too many other white Americans, especially conservative cable news commentators, twist King’s words in this way. What they and similarly misinformed others fail to realize is that King was one of our nation’s most courageous and consistent defenders of Black lives. I often urge people to read A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Doing so could help people more accurately understand King’s specific stance on the value of Black lives.

The article, written by Shaun R. Harper, “a Provost Professor in the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California” and “founder and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center” ends with:

I want (Nancy) Mace and other whites to read more of King’s writings, listen to more of his sermons, and reflect deeply on what it is he would call on them to do in these times. Perhaps they’ll subsequently stop conveniently and dishonestly misquoting him.

From the City Heights Community Development website and the article 5 MLK Quotes Too Radical To White-Wash comes further context.

“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and racism. The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power”. —King to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) board on March 30, 1967.

Doesn’t sound like the Dr. King most white people think about.

Texas A&M Today published What Martin Luther King Jr. Said About Systemic Racism We don’t often think of that more modern term as associated with Dr. King. He is quoted as saying:

“Justice for black people will not flow into this society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory…White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society,”

The Seattle Times published Dear white conservatives: Here’s what else Dr. King said.

“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a … mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

That last quote could apply just as easily to the white liberals of King’s day or even in the 2020s. Whites who are willing to march and write articles but not to initiate the changes in themselves and their environment that they believe Dr. King and Ibram X Kendi relative to systemic racism and anti-racism.

So besides reading more of Dr. King’s works and gaining a more historically accurate picture of the man, what should we do? I mean if we are people of good conscience and truly support equality and justice for people of color, where is the path? Is there a path (and that last question is an excellent question)?

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture has what I consider a really comprehensive article on what it is to be an anti-racist. I don’t know if Dr. King would have supported it or not, but the various activists and such seem to think he would.

You can read the article Being Antiracist at your leisure and come to your own conclusions about what it suggests.

There are a few key points that I’d like to highlight, though.

Race does not biologically exist, yet how we identify with race is so powerful, it influences our experiences and shapes our lives. In a society that privileges white people and whiteness, racist ideas are considered normal throughout our media, culture, social systems, and institutions. Historically, racist views justified the unfair treatment and oppression of people of color (including enslavement, segregation, internment, etc.). We can be led to believe that racism is only about individual mindsets and actions, yet racist policies also contribute to our polarization. While individual choices are damaging, racist ideas in policy have a wide-spread impact by threatening the equity of our systems and the fairness of our institutions. To create an equal society, we must commit to making unbiased choices and being antiracist in all aspects of our lives.

That may have taken a few of you by surprise, especially the “Race does not biologically exist” part.

No one is born racist or antiracist; these result from the choices we make. Being antiracist results from a conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily. These choices require ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection as we move through life. In the absence of making antiracist choices, we (un)consciously uphold aspects of white supremacy, white-dominant culture, and unequal institutions and society. Being racist or antiracist is not about who you are; it is about what you do.

So basically in order to be racist and a white supremacist, all you really have to do is hold unconscious attitudes, that is, attitudes that you yourself have no conscious awareness of. Also, to quote Ibram Kendi:

To be antiracist is a radical choice in the face of history, requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness.


When we choose to be antiracist, we become actively conscious about race and racism and take actions to end racial inequities in our daily lives. Being antiracist is believing that racism is everyone’s problem, and we all have a role to play in stopping it.

This is the key point of the antiracism position. Everything is about race and in order to be antiracist, we must continuously be thinking about and considering race in every word, action, or situation we may find ourselves in.

Being antiracist is different for white people than it is for people of color. For white people, being antiracist evolves with their racial identity development. They must acknowledge and understand their privilege, work to change their internalized racism, and interrupt racism when they see it.

In essence the onus of being antiracist is on white people.

All racial groups struggle under white supremacy. People of color groups are not always united in solidarity. People of color can act by challenging internalized white supremacy and interrupting patterns of prejudice against other racial groups. For everyone, it is an ongoing practice and process.

Ibram X. Kendi – Copyright: 2019 James Hole

Any issues that different groups have with each other, such as the recent series of attacks on Asians by black people, is ultimately the fault of whites and white supremacy (and remember that we all have unconscious attitudes of white supremacy). This denies that people have any personal responsibility for their actions if they’re continuously under the influence of “white supremacy.”

Now let’s get back to Dr. King and the day we use to honor his legacy. How would he have viewed all of this? I have no idea and from my perspective, there’s no way to tell.

However, from the viewpoint of modern activists, Dr. King would have totally agreed with all of these statements, and we who would quote (or misquote) Dr. King on this day, if we really want to honor King, have a decision to make.

  • We can choose to believe Kendi and embrace the antiracist manifesto and all that it contains.
  • We can continue to (mis)quote Dr. King because it seems to be an easier path.
  • We can choose to read more closely the writings and teachings of Dr. King on this day in order to honor him.
  • We can choose to not accept any of it and resolve to not (mis)quote Dr. King as a way to honor him by not distorting his legacy.
  • We can decide, as Christians (or Messianics or whatever) to return to the Bible, to the Almighty, and to our own conscience and determine what our next steps should be as white believers in 21st century America.

From my point of view, this would be an excellent opportunity to actually read Dr. King’s writings rather than just a few convenient quotes. Maybe we’ll let it go at that, but at the end of the day, we may know more about the man than we did before.

It may also teach us something about whether or not “Antiracism” is something that is a viable option for us as individuals, for our families, communities, and the nation…or not.

Who knows, maybe Jesus would have been antiracist as well. I’m sure someone out there believes that.

gay jesus
“Just a Thought” by San Diego Shooter Nathan Rupert

On the other hand, there are those who believe Jesus was gay, which is not supportable in the Biblical text.

No matter how many professors write books such as Kendi’s upcoming How to Be a (Young) Antiracist (everybody’s selling a book), these sorts of publications come and go. Maybe this one will stick around. But no matter what, we must still measure that book and these ideas against the Word of God, the Bible. It’s not always easy for a variety of reasons but consider this.

To be a believer means to become attached to a set of timeless truths that don’t shift with the whims of social or societal dictates. I won’t tell you if any of the above does or doesn’t map with the Bible. That’s a decision for you to make as an individual.

What I am saying, at least for me, is that I will not be quoting from Dr. King now or in the future.

Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise;
When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent. –Proverbs 17:28 (NASB)

For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires… –2 Timothy 4:3 (NASB)


9 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Misquoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

  1. “We can decide, as Christians (or Messianics or whatever) to return to the Bible, to the Almighty, and to our own conscience and determine what our next steps should be as white believers in 21st century America.”

    I would say we need to determine our next steps as Believers in the 21st Century. Not just “White” believers, and not just in America.

    “there are those who believe Jesus was gay”

    Church tradition maintains that He was celibate. He was/is God incarnate, He loves all His children the same.

    Also, he was born and raised Jewish. Even if he was sexually attracted to men, He would have known the law and not committed the act.

    1. Yes, I know he wasn’t gay. I was making the point that modern progressivism attempt to apply itself onto history in ways that don’t make sense. On the other note, if, even as (white) believers, we’ve allowed ourselves to behave without justice toward POCs, how do we respond to that, or should we?

  2. I’d like to suggest an alternative to the choices presented of racist or anti-racist. That alternative might be called simply non-racist. That is to say, a worldview that recognizes the biological reality that race does not exist – it is an entirely artificial construct. A non-racist recognizes that humans are formed in a diverse spectrum of sizes, shapes, skin tones, facial characteristics, aptitudes and intelligence levels; and does not pre-judge on appearance or perceived identity affiliation. One such encounters each human being as one who might represent any combination of a wide range of capabilities and needs, and observes him or her for cues or indications of how to interact with that person. One cannot undo any prior experience that the person may have encountered or suffered previously, personally or generationally. One can only operate in the present and into the future on the basis I’ve described. That basis does not suffer from preconceived racist notions, expectations, or cultural constructs. It might have required some active thought to resist or reverse surrounding environmental or cultural cues prior to integrating a truly non-racist worldview, because many racists do surround us and racism is becoming more virulent in recent culture. Note that this applies to everyone. The notion that all racism may be attributed to something called “white supremacy” is itself a racist notion that may afflict anyone who has not schooled himself to think non-racially.

    As for quoting Dr.King, I will continue to reference his stated hope that his children someday may be judged for the content of their character rather than for the color of their skin. That is a quintessentially non-racist statement. It is a universal hope that should be applied to those perceived to be “white” as well as to those of any other skin tone. Regardless of any other statements he may have made, that modern racists quote selectively to bolster their enmity, the greatest honor that can be accorded Dr.King is to quote selectively his best, most non-racist, sayings – and let anything less worthy that he might have said slip into historical oblivion.

    1. It is true that we cannot undo history, including any nation’s history of slavery (many nations have been guilty of this historically). However the pundits will say that we white people have “internalized” a history of white supremacy and we need to adjust our perspectives and behavior to actively address racism as it exists today, generally casting ourselves as the villain of the piece. To do as you suggest would be to totally reject the pronouncements of anti-racist advocates such as Kendi and propose the alternative you present. Of course, they’ll reject it because there’s a lot of time, energy, and money applied to the “anti-racist doctrine.”

      My idea, based on experience, is that racism will fade, at least on the personal level, when unalike people come together, find common interests and goals, and let those bind them in friendship. If everyone did that, then whole cultures might be able to put aside centuries old disagreements and hatreds. Of course that’s easier said than done and as I said to Questor, ultimate justice will not be established until Messiah’s return when we are all completely under his authority.

  3. There is only one race among humans, despite ethnic, cultural and educational diversity. When all ethnicities and cultures are valued for their differences, and broad-based education of factual truth is absorbed by all we might have people laughing at the label ‘racist’, and yawning at the idea of social justice having long since been accomplished. I don’t expect it to occur any time soon . . . people are so fond of the idea of racial inequities creating all our problems. They don’t have to put any work in on the matter.

    1. One way to address the issue is that, barring any human intervention or if our interventions are inadequate, Messiah will return to establish true justice across the entire world. It probably won’t look like what most or all of these online pundits suggest, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see. That said, both Christianity and Judaism have a long history of addressing injustice and providing charity to the disadvantaged.

  4. Good grief! Why are people so easily played? The race issue is being used to change our form of government from a representative republic to a marxist form. Civil rights-dry water; Our Declaration of Independence based our rights on the Creator! God given rights, there is no race but the human race. Read Frederick Douglas-PLEASE!!! This man is one of my heroes.

  5. Although I tried to post something to comments, last night, about the third/last photo in your opening blog post, James, I don’t know where it went. It was a question and, I suppose, less important in the sense of being a distraction compared to the main subject matter. I won’t try to re-state it. As of the incident and aftermath of Uvalde, I don’t tune in for details of shootings any more (therefore the ignorance and question) and doubt anything is going to be corrected in that regard.

    Moving on…

    Ibram X Kendi could be an interesting read, but I simply think a lot of people ought to engage in the conversation and try to respect each other as we try to improve. I fully agree with reading much more of what Dr. King said before assuming to be aware of his values and hopes — and basically speaking as if “for” him — looking, rather, to the thrust and history of some famous lines along with more context to be passed to new generations for considering and processing (rather than picking a party or offering on a ballot).

    “There must be a grand alliance of Negro and white. This alliance must consist of the vast majorities of each group. It must have the objective of eradicating social evils [that] oppress both white and Negro.” (1964) – King …. wanted whites and people of color to recognize how economic systems of oppression disadvantaged them both, and to understand that working together would significantly improve their chances of overthrowing engines of wealth inequity.

    “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and racism. The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power”. —King to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) board on March 30, 1967.

    Woe per … an aspect of their sense of superiority [or comfort] … people … believe they have so little to learn

    Kendi: All racial groups struggle under white supremacy. People of color groups are not always united in solidarity. People of color can act by challenging internalized white supremacy and interrupting patterns of prejudice against other racial groups. For everyone, it is an ongoing practice and process.

    And me responding to the intro for conversation:

    A lot “is about race” even if not “Everything” is — in a nation founded in human trafficking and slavery and rape but with any real concept of being a better union (or with an intention to have healthier steps in a “path” forward).

    I do not agree that “the onus of being antiracist is on white people” in “essence.” But we are not exempt.

    So many of these concepts apply, too, when considering religious history. Rather than insisting I mean no harm or you mean no harm or someone else means harm, I can and you can consciously decide to be more aware of what is unconsciously assumed and help others to do likewise.

    Many Jewish people worked with Dr. King in fulfillment of remembering (as so instructed) what the tribes of Israel long ago went through and having later been of minority culture(s) oppressed… remembering for the sake of others.

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