MLK Was Woke

Martin Luther King Jr looking pensive

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who held up the ideals of what this nation is supposed to be about, forced our society to look at it, and then asked why we were not living up to it.

This was not just limited to race. He also talked about police violence, economic inequality, accessibility to housing, the worst sides of capitalism, and women’s rights. Being outspoken on these issues made him deeply unpopular. This is because these were controversial views to hold (still are), and polls of the day showed that many Americans disapproved of him.

What really caused people to hate him was his statements that envisioned a world that would “look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation.” It was one thing to go after racial inequality; in the minds of many white people, that was too much. Going after economic inequality was a step too far for some.

Rabbi and social activist Danya Ruttenberg has quite a list of Dr. King quotes in her Twitter thread here:

A few select quotes (click on the link to see the rest):

“We’ve deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew from the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. Capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of Black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – Black & white, here & abroad.”


“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”


“The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.”

Today, this is called being “woke.” At one time, the term was used in the Black community to describe being aware of racism and its dangers and it has a fairly long history. Now, it has been hijacked by Republicans and like-minded pundits as a term of derision and scorn.

Of course, woke does not really mean anything other than stuff that white racists do not like, such as honesty in our school history classes and acknowledging that trans people should be allowed to exist. It is also fairly nebulous. If you have fallen for the right-wing woke hype, all I can tell you is there is a chance they will eventually go after something you care about and will label it “woke” (especially if you are female).

If you feel this way, you also likely would be one of the 70% who disapproved of MLK right before he was murdered. This is not meant to hurt your feelings, no more than any other form of reality. This is just based on straight numbers and math. It is also based on very similar beliefs.

This also means that many moderates today would have been among those who disapproved. White moderates were a constant source of frustration for Dr. King. While many post the “content of their character” quote today because it makes them feel better, MLK felt this way about those very same people (from Letter from a Birmingham Jail):

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.


I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

This would, no doubt, elicit some sighs and eye rolls from the Very Serious and Sensible Centrist Thinkers of the Discourse if Dr. King said this today. It would also get him plenty of accusations of being “woke.”

The last word goes to the man himself, and these were his last words in public. This clip begins with “All I say to America is be true to what you said on paper.”

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