When I first saw the curved, cocooning hands of The Embrace, the winning design recently announced as Boston’s new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, I found myself transported back to my kids’ elementary school auditorium, circa January 2010.
It was my first Martin Luther King Day celebration as a black mother in an overwhelmingly white school system. It was also my first exposure to the cheery, sing-after-me tune that schools use to celebrate King — a tune that unsettled me from the very first bars, even as it got an entire assembly swaying in unison:
Sing about Martin (Sing about Martin)
Sing about loving (sing about loving)
Sing about peace (sing about peace)
All around the world (all around the world)
“Sing About Martin” was written by “Miss Jackie,” the late Jacquelyn Lou Silberg, a white woman and child development expert. For millions of kids across America, the song marks their introduction to King. But it’s tough to reconcile its warm-hearted refrains with the radical protester condemned by most of white America until after his violent death. How do you sing a song about love and then explain that King’s brand of love led the FBI to label him “the most dangerous Negro” in America? You don’t. And that’s the problem.
What unsettled me in that auditorium, and what troubles me about The Embrace, is this: For too long, remembrances of King have failed to do what King did in his lifetime — find ways to disrupt powerful systems and force white people to confront their everyday complicity in white supremacy. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh praised The Embrace for embodying “the spirit of love and compassion that the Kings demonstrated throughout their lives.” But the love the Kings practiced was urgent and disobedient. It deeply disturbed the status quo, and it withstood devastating consequences for doing so: firebombs, death threats, sabotage, and surveillance.
In its bronze warmth, The Embrace literally shelters us. It invites us in, without ever challenging us to recognize the first act of love that racial justice requires: to tell the truth.
The words that have come to define King’s legacy function as their own kind of shelter, softening the truths he spoke and sanitizing him for white consumption. Did King preach about a dream? Yes, he did. Did King talk about judging each other by the content of our character? Absolutely. Did he say the words “We must love each other?” Sure. King said some other things, too. For starters: “It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.” King also said, “A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? . . . that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.” More than once, white America has reached for the nearest handy King quote to condemn protests in Ferguson, Missouri; Sacramento; and Baltimore. But the Kings never chose between love and protest. Non-cooperation was their expression of love in action.
In reality, King’s legacy aligns much more closely with movements like Black Lives Matter (and in the years before his assassination, King had roughly the same approval rating among white Americans — about 33 percent — that Black Lives Matter has now). Reclaiming this legacy has been the ongoing work of activists who themselves are now deemed dangerous, just as King was then. And therein lies the disconnect of The Embrace. In this moment, when profoundly anti-black systems of brutality, incarceration, segregation, and the yawning racial wealth gap call for radical resistance, the gesture of this memorial left me feeling strangely alone. This doesn’t feel like a time for songs or hugs. It feels like a time for speaking and confronting painful truths. And with all due respect to Miss Jackie, our children need to confront them, too.
The past two Januarys, I’ve celebrated Martin Luther King Day far from the suburban woodlands of my kids’ school. As co-director of a social justice project for kids, I help lead an annual workshop at Boston Children’s Museum called “R Is For Resistance: #ReclaimMLK.” At this assembly, there is no talk of sharing and caring. Instead, families gather under an image of King pushed against a police desk as Coretta looks on. Children as young as age 4 learn that King was jailed not once, not twice, but more than a dozen times — a fact that turns every last head, because they’ve been taught to believe, as one girl said, “only bad people go to jail.” Then, with hand-crafted signs and in total silence, the kids stage a mass, one-minute protest. Soundless, they sing about Martin by channeling his most important act of love: He said no.
“What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.August 16, 1967