The Legacy of MLK Jr. and the erasure of Black women

On Monday, January 17th we celebrate the highly esteemed civil rights activist, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I wholly expect to log into Facebook and see an incessant amount of social media posts relishing in the legacy of Dr. King and reciting borrowed quotes from his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech. I am not arguing that Dr. King was not an influential leader and I do believe he deserves every ounce of celebration and admiration for his work in advancing racial justice.

Dr. King had an impeccable reputation of using non-divisive racial and social rhetoric early in his career to gain the support of some white moderates and conservatives, and he was at the forefront of two critical pieces of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Additionally, even being a minister, Dr. King was able to draw large audiences not only because of his biblical knowledge and oratorical ability, but also his emphasis on social activism and justice. Dr. King is America’s hero — and I am not here to take away from or pollute his legacy by any means. But as we know with most things, two things can be true at the same time.

Dr. King can be heralded as an influential civil rights leader, and we can also talk about how the exclusive focus on his legacy continues to uphold systems of patriarchy. Additionally, we can also acknowledge him as a pusher for racial justice, while also recognizing his inherent patriarchal practices. The civil rights movement was relegated to the male perspective even though women played pivotal roles in organizing, but much of their work was overshadowed by men, and many of them were kept in roles that lacked autonomy and visibility.

Ella Baker, a leading figure in the civil rights movement but often rarely discussed in popular discourse and commemorations. Ella was the founder of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, and served as the director for a brief time, until she was forced out. Her role was given to another male religious leader. Many of the men who were viewed on equal footing with Dr. King were Baptist ministers who followed religious tenants that dictated that men should be bestowed primary leadership roles within and outside the church. America has often used religion to add credence to the marginalization, and exclusion of women from having any sphere of influence.

In much of our history, Black men are credited for advancing civil rights and being political leaders. Patriarchy suppresses the accomplishments of women like Fannie Lou Hamer who remained pivotal in the fight for racial justice. Fannie Lou Hammer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964; this party was intended to encourage Black political participation, while also challenging the prevailing assumption that only white affluent people were interested in political activism.

Patriarchy has sexualized our history and focused on the civil rights movement as being both male-led and male-centered. Black liberation is only equated with the liberation of Black masculinity and manhood. As a Black woman, I am oftentimes forced to suppress my gender identity in the fight for racial justice, and I have realized that exclusively aligning yourself with racial justice inherently perpetuates sexism. This is most apparent in the Black Lives Matter Movement, a movement that is quite noble but has almost exclusively focused on the violence, and harm done to Black men, while the murders and violence experienced by Black women and Black Trans women are largely ignored. The #MeToo movement was born out of patriarchy and male chauvinism — The #MeToo movement propels us to pay attention to the sexual trauma and violence that Black women experience.

This MLK day, I want us to think beyond “I Have A Dream” quotes. I want us to interrogate the exclusion of women in our history books. I want us to be more intentional about demanding we get the breadth and depth of our nation’s history. If we don’t, we only serve to continue to perpetuate the continued marginalization of Black women in History.

We must remember that any true movement towards social justice in America must include and center Black and Brown women.

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I’m a writer and higher education administrator. A doctor of sociology with a love for writing topics on race, intersectionality, and women’s career issues.

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Dr. Ciera Graham

Dr. Ciera Graham

I’m a writer and higher education administrator. A doctor of sociology with a love for writing topics on race, intersectionality, and women’s career issues.

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