On September 13, 2016, Clemson University’s head football coach Dabo Swinney was asked what he would do if one of his players refused to stand for the national anthem. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had recently done so, explaining that he would not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Swinney took issue not with Kaepernick’s message, but with his method. Dismissing Kaepernick’s refusal to stand as “distracting,” Swinney deployed the image of Martin Luther King Jr. as a model of “the right way” to protest.
Swinney’s words immediately sparked controversy. Clemson professor Chenjerai Kumanyika responded with an open letter to Swinney, sharply titled “Take MLK’s name out your mouth.” He chastised Swinney for participating in a long, misguided heritage of sanitizing King’s radicalism, and of corrupting King’s legacy for the purposes of white moderate liberalism. “In the face of the injustices in his own time,” Kumanyika writes, “Dr. King called for direct action, not press conferences.”
The editors of Race and Secularism in America, Vincent Lloyd and Jonathon Kahn, would not be surprised by this marshalling of Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, nor by the fact that this legacy is constantly contested and renegotiated along lines of protest, race, and religion. Indeed, in the collection’s introduction, the King monument in Washington, DC serves as a towering symbol of the complex relationship of its two subjects—race and secularism—and their analytical inextricability. King is central to the collection’s claim: Because “whiteness is secular, and the secular is white,” “the careful management of race and religion are the prerequisite for accepting the public significance of a fundamentally raced religious figure.” Indeed, the collection takes as its central stance that secularism itself is primarily a (white, liberal) game of managing and excluding difference.