The creator of the 1619 Project, Pulitzer-winning historian Nikole Hannah-Jones, served as the University of Wisconsin’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium speaker this Tuesday, talking about his legacy and how MLK’s legacy has been diluted into a “safe” version that Americans can stomach.

Hannah-Jones began the speech by warning the audience that if they came hoping for an uplifting, feel-good speech, they had come to the wrong place.

“This is the time of year when the people who don’t align with Dr. King’s values like to try out his name,” Hannah-Jones said.

Hannah-Jones said her speech would aim to correct the benign, safe version of MLK that many Americans were taught in school. This version is not only inaccurate and white-washed but was intentionally cultivated as part of a conservative agenda to erase the advancements of the civil rights movement, Hannah-Jones said.

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During his time, MLK called for a redistribution of economic power, the end of the military-industrial complex and a complete dismantling of systematic racism, Hannah-Jones said. But because MLK’s philosophy was so radical, conservatives and white moderates diluted his legacy, reducing it to platitudes about non-violence and being colorblind.

As a result, the historical MLK became so malleable, conservatives could invoke his name even when passing legislation banning public educators from having discussion that would make their students feel “discomfort” about race, Hannah-Jones said.

Hannah-Jones said the history behind MLK’s portrayal is the same history as the struggle of Black Americans — a movement that garnered mainstream attention, a period of changes, followed by a white backlash that water-downed or eliminated many of the movement’s advancements. Hannah-Jones called this backlash “white appeasement politics.”

The same pattern is occurring now with the Black Lives Matter movement and the 1619 project, Hannah-Jones said. After the murder of George Floyd in 2019, a majority of Americans supported Black Lives Matter. Then came a white backlash, Hannah-Jones said. Conservatives passed laws banning teaching Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project in public education, and the mainstream support of BLM flagged, Hannah-Jones said.

The challenge today is how to keep the movement going and protect our democracy, Hannah-Jones said.

“We are not a safe country,” Hannah-Jones said. “We are not a healthy country right now. People of color know we are in danger, but we don’t have the numbers to change it on our own.”