What does it mean to speak truth to power?
What does it mean to be beaten for your convictions? To be jailed? To be surveilled by the FBI?
What does it mean to be one of the most polarizing people in the United States? To have your life ended because of white supremacy and racial hatred? To be assassinated at the age of 39?
Just before the country shared countless Martin Luther King Jr. remembrances and quotes on a day meant to commemorate the civil rights leader, Theo Wilson—an activist, poet and author who was the keynote speaker at Muskegon Community College’s annual “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast” this past Friday morning—emphasized much of the country’s narrative around Dr. King rings empty and shallow.
“They’ve stuffed and mounted his legacy, gutted it of substance,” Wilson told the sold-out crowd gathered for the 24th annual breakfast, which is held each year to remember Dr. King and build understanding in the community. “But the last few years of Dr. King’s life are not talked about. They are perhaps the most relevant years to properly frame what we are going through in American today—because, in the last few years of Dr. King’s life, he was starting to change his tune just a little bit.”
That tune, Wilson explained, was one in which a demoralized pastor began to deeply question the possibility of racial harmony in the country.
“In the last two weeks of Dr. King’s life, he was about to do a march; he was in a hotel room, and a singer by the name of Harry Belafonte discovers Dr. King two weeks before his assassination, looking forlon outside his hotel window,” Wilson said. “Harry Belafonte asks Dr. King, ‘Dr. King, what seems to be troubling you, sir?’ Without breaking his gaze out the window, Dr. King said, ‘You know, I cannot shake the feeling that I’m integrating my people into a burning house.’”
It was a sentiment that came amidst resilience—and despair.
“He was looking at the violence in Vietnam and saw the murder of brown bodies over there as connected to the murder of black bodies over here,” Wilson said. “…And he was wondering if the moral compass of America was, in fact, redeemable.”
By 1968, the year King was assassinated, the civil rights leader had faced assaults and beatings for speaking out against racism and injustice, had been the target of racist insults, had bricks and bottles thrown at him, had received numerous death threats, and was stabbed in the chest in an attack that nearly killed him in 1958. His work fighting systemic racism, poverty and militarism, including his opposition to the Vietnam War, had made him one of the most polarizing leaders in the country. By the time he arrived for a garbage workers strike, precipitated by the deaths of two workers crushed inside their own garbage trucks, in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968, King was deeply fatigued.
“On April 3, 1968, Dr. King was considered the most divisive man in America,” Wilson said. “On April 4, 1968, he was a legend. And so what I say to you is: these are the things that we don’t talk about in Dr. King’s life.”
That deep fatigue—that questioning as to whether or not all of his efforts to change the country were being heeded at all, if white America would ever fully join the fight for racial and economic justice—is something, Wilson emphasized, that black Americans know well. For Wilson, he has seen, decades after King’s assassination, the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the rise and consequent demonization of the Black Lives Matter movement, and police brutality against people of color—including his own friend, Alonzo Ashley, being tased to death at a Denver zoo, 18-year-old Michael Brown being shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; and Eric Garner’s final words as he died at the hands of the New York Police Department: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
Wilson was a student at Florida A&M University when there were two bombings at the school in 1999, after which he noted there was very little national attention paid to the crimes at the predominantly black university. And he himself has known what it is to be the target of racial hatred; after he began to post YouTube videos about culture and race, the trolls spewing hate descended into his comment sections.
“I ask myself all the time: What is this shadow that follows the lives of those who stand up for justice?” Wilson asked during his talk at Muskegon Community College. “Because everybody who follows in Dr. King’s footsteps, especially if you’re black, understands you’re courting the attention of that shadow. We know this. In fact, it draws attention to the fact that African Americans, sadly, are forced to know what white America will not admit: that this shadow follows us even to this day. And so, those of us who take up the mantle, especially those who bare my flesh, understand what we are dealing with when we’re walking down that path. And good senses tell you: be wary. It’s what has kept a lot of us from fighting for justice.”
Wilson grew up understanding the reality of white supremacist violence—how “my skin color is a gang color my mama cannot shop me out of”—and, beginning as a teenager, has been engaged in the fight for racial justice, including organizing protests in the wake of of Michael Brown’s death. But, even while he has been on the frontlines of advocating for change, he, too, said he has felt powerless, as though, for example, police could kill him and get away with it. He cited one example in which a fight had broken out at a club he was dancing at while in his early 20s and, when the police responded, an altercation between himself and police led to him being taken into a room, handcuffed and beaten.
“I thought this was it; this is how I die,” Wilson said.
He began to break down crying, thinking of his mother learning of his death, and a police officer uncuffed him. When he emerged from the room, he saw the headline from a newspaper about the 2003 blackouts in New York City; it said: “Powerless.”
“I am the grandson of a Tuskegee airman; my grandfather fought Hitler and American racism—powerless,” he said. “My father is a Vietnam veteran who served honorably after being drafted—powerless. I’m the first man in my bloodline to graduate college since slavery and before—powerless.”
After college, Wilson pressed on, becoming increasingly involved in the political landscape—and, in 2012, he vividly remembers when Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old born in 1995, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman—a self-appointed “neighborhood watchman” who followed Martin as the teenager walked home, iced tea and Skittles in hand, from 7-11, before killing him.
“A new cry came over the horizon called Black Lives Matter,” Wilson said. “I remember thinking Black Lives Matter seems to be the subtext of every single black movement since abolition… Now, we’re just saying it in plain English and people are mad. We’re just saying black lives matter—not aren’t any more important than yours, just matter.”
“A cry for help is being interpreted as a battle cry—why?” he continued. “What’s going on in the psyche of America that they’re distorting our cries for help?”
In the shadow of all of this, Wilson told Friday’s crowd, he began to make YouTube videos exploring race, including one inspired by author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay advocating for reparations. The video went viral. So he started to make more videos.
And then he went to his videos’ comments section.
“What do I find? A lot of love,” he said. “But then I start to see blips of hate—and hate-hate, calling me names hate. I was getting trolled by these racist people.”
He began to notice a trend among his racist commenters: there seemed to be very similar lies propagated by them—including that slavery actually benefited enslaved Africans, that black Americans should be grateful to white Americans for “fighting to free you from slavery,” that philanthropist George Soros is funding the Black Lives Matter movement, and so forth.
To further explore what was happening, Wilson set up an avatar of John Carter, a Confederate soldier in a science fiction series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, named himself “Lucius 25,” and, in the year 2015, dove headfirst into the online world of the alt-right. For months, he would feign racist conversations with his “fellow” alt-righters, slamming Black Lives Matter, questioning President Barack Obama’s birthplace, and so on.
“As I began to investigate the hatred, to understand what’s at the root of it, I found it was fear,” Wilson said. “These white guys were expressing fears they’d lose the country they knew, fears they would not have what their fathers had. And they’d been taught to blame black and brown people. They’d been taught we were the root cause of them coming up short.”
“They were framing it as: Diversity is causing me to lose,” Wilson continued.
There are, of course, many layers creating this problem, Wilson noted, but one of them is a lack of education about the history of the country, he said.
“America doesn’t teach history the right way,” Wilson said. “When you exclude the histories of people of color, you are setting a new generation of white people up to fall for the same bait. That’s called fraud.”
“Why doesn’t America talk about the fact that George Washington was known by the Seneca natives as ‘Town Destroyer,’ burning 28 Seneca villages?” Wilson asked. “Why don’t we know that Abraham Lincoln is responsible for the greatest mass lynching in America of Native Americans resisting the settlement of Minnesota? How come we don’t understand that the burning of black townships, like Black Wall Street, is what led to the ghettoization of America? We don’t understand that, and, because of that, this group of folks is denied the truth of knowledge and history that is actually American history—and that is posing a threat to the American experience.”
All of this—the police brutality, the explosion of racism online, the little education about race in America—leads to “another destructive factor, maybe the most destructive factor”—black fatigue, Wilson said.
“Lord, we are tired of having to explain our history to folks again and again when you can find this on Google, having to explain that political justice is not enough when an economic system has decapitated our ability to accrue wealth,” he said, noting that black families, on average, have far less wealth than white families. As of 2016, the average black family had a net worth of $17,100, or about one-tenth of the $171,000 accumulated by a white household, according to federal research.
Black Americans have seen promises come and go—they’ve seen Emancipation happen, followed by Reconstruction—when “1876 was like post-racial America,” Wilson said.
“Then the betrayal of 1877 happens, and Northern soldiers are removed from the South; then Jim Crow happens,” he continued.
All of which, Wilson said, has translated to black Americans being made to wade, swim and drown in a sea of distrust.
“It has forced us to wonder which dream we can actually invest in, what’s safe for our children to believe in,” he said.
“…That’s why the movie ‘Get Out’ scared black people so bad,” he continued, referring to Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror film that tackles racism—and takes special aim at racism among wealthy liberals. “We were forced to face that, ‘Oh my God, we’re actually scared of white people low-key, and we have to pretend we’re not.’”
So, must we all sink into a depression that we are doomed to live out the same racist story again and again?
No, Wilson said—but that means acknowledging history and its continued impact on today, as well as a nationwide push to dismantle systemic racism and poverty.
“America won’t remove the knife from our back; it won’t even acknowledge that it’s there,” he said.
“We have to figure out these hard things, but can we do it? Yes,” Wilson continued. “Can we build the machinery for equality? Yes.”