The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is sometimes distilled into a moment in history, a still frame in the civil rights struggle, memorialized on a national monument as the man who delivered the soaring “I Have a Dream” speech. Today, people still try to make him into a figure they are comfortable with. Every year on his official birthday, corporations and white people herald him and his legacy, ignoring that they did not always hold him in such high regard.
During his lifetime, King was considered by the government and white people in general as one of the most disliked people in the country, a national security threat by the FBI, and a Black man who threatened the status quo. He was seen as an enemy of the state, just like so many of our siblings who have experienced state-sanctioned violence; who have experienced disproportionate impacts of COVID-19; who have gone through this life feeling like there is a moving target on our backs — while we run, while we play, while we sleep. Though white people now honor him, let me remind you that he was a Black man invested in Black people’s economic prosperity and social advancement. King was a man who firmly believed that Black Lives Matter.
In fact, his last speaking appearance, in 1968, focused on striking sanitation workers in Memphis. Crowds braved a storm to hear him speak, and he thanked them for attending — that it showed they possessed the strength to carry on the movement. At the meeting, he delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, when he said he would ask his Almighty to let him live in current-day America because something special was happening. He said: “And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be.”
“Ought to be” as in what the United States ought to be, what it should be, what we fight for it to be. After the pro-Trump terrorist attack on the US Capitol building last week, when white supremacists stormed the seat of our government, Americans could not simply ignore the terror staring them in the face. For some, it was surprising. For Black people, it wasn’t. This moment in history demands we not look away, and instead mend the most broken parts of our society. Otherwise, the 400-year-old cycle of ignoring us will repeat. After the chaos incited by white supremacists, America must take a hard look at itself.
It must acknowledge that white supremacy is a part of its identity. That the terror attack on the Capitol was not simply a result of the last four years but generations in the making. The terror attack was long coming because white supremacy has been interwoven into our institutions, history, and culture. It is coded in the DNA of this country. It is the same identity that despised King and led to his assassination. It is the same attitude that killed Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. America must not look away from itself but instead unequivocally decide that white supremacy is no longer what it ought to be and eradicate it once and for all. The eradication of white supremacy was King’s vision of what America ought to be.
America ought to be about thriving Black lives. It ought to be about healing the past so we can thrive in the future. We all need to heal from anti-Black racism, and every moment we have experienced since this country began demands it. It ought to be about Black lives’ economic prosperity — funds dedicated to both surviving and flourishing. It ought to be about abolition of white supremacist institutions. It ought to be about life-affirming institutions rather than systems that sanction violence against our bodies. It ought to be about policy that heals our past. It ought to be about safety for our communities — while we run, play, and sleep.
It ought to be investments in health, education, housing, and environmental justice like the BREATHE Act. It ought to be investments in art and cultural spaces that reimagine the present. It ought to be the complete transformation and reimagination of Black futures in the United States and across the globe. It ought to be about the celebration of Black lives. It ought to be about Black liberation. As Martin Luther King Jr. believed, America ought to be the place where Black Lives Matter. We cannot thrive unless we heal.
Patrisse Cullors is a cofounder of Black Lives Matter and the executive director of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.