The discussion arises as New York and the nation revisit familiar debates over race, identity, diversity and opportunity —in Congressional hearings, on the campuses of elite colleges and universities, the workplace and presidential politics.
Panelists include Jonathan Eig, author of “King, A Life”; Juliet Hooker, author of “Black Grief/White Grievance: The Politics of Loss”; and Rahiel Tesfamariam, a theologian and former Washington Post columnist.
Hooker, the Royce Family Professor of Teaching Excellence in Political Science at Brown University, told Gothamist in an interview the word “woke” originated in African American Vernacular English and now wielded various meanings, depending on one’s politics.
While many conservatives, she said, used the word to describe people “who are easily offended, or taking political correctness too far,” it had an entirely different meaning for progressives.
“If we think about it as referring to being alert to racial prejudice and racial discrimination then of course, King was woke by that definition,” Hooker said.
In his time, Hooker said, King was “deeply unpopular among white audiences” for his efforts challenging white supremacy and against poverty. Opposition to King wasn’t confined to the deep South, she said.
During one protest in 1966, King was struck in the head by a rock hurled by a “burly white man,” according to the Los Angeles Times, which described “a surging, screaming mob of whites.” Many whites, said Hooker, viewed King as “a radical, a rabble rouser.”
Now, she said King is frequently portrayed as a “centrist,” one who is “often marshaled” by modern-day conservatives to undermine the efforts of contemporary protesters.
In 2015, while running for president, Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, invoked King in order to criticize the Black Lives Matter movement.
“When I hear people scream, ‘Black lives matter,’ I think, ‘Of course they do.’ But all lives matter. It’s not that any life matters more than another,” Huckabee said on CNN. “That’s the whole message that Dr. King tried to present, and I think he’d be appalled by the notion that we’re elevating some lives above others,”
In 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida pointed to Dr. King while discussing his Stop Woke Act legislation, which was eventually signed into law and restricts the teaching of race and gender in schools and companies.
“You think about what MLK stood for. He said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character,” DeSantis said, as quoted by the Washington Post. “You listen to some of these people nowadays, they don’t talk about that.”
According to Hooker, those invocations distort the real message of King.
“He’s been appropriated and remembered as a much more conservative figure than he really was.”
“The Inconvenient King” will be live streamed on Sunday at the Apollo Digital Stage and aired nationally at 6 pm Sunday on Notes from America with Kai Wright. It will be rebroadcast at 2 pm Monday on WNYC.