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MLK Day: The Watering Down of His Legacy

The “Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” as it’s officially known, was signed into law as a national holiday in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was certainly not a friend to African Americans during his eight years in the White House, but he reluctantly signed off on the holiday to court moderate Democrats. 

The first MLK day was celebrated nationally three years later, but not in every state.  It took until 2000 for all states to officially recognize it as a paid holiday for state employees (although in Alabama and Mississippi it shares the holiday with “Robert E. Lee Day,” ironically enough), with South Carolina being the last state to make it an official state holiday.


Over the years, the recognition of Dr. King and his life’s work has morphed into a minimalist focus on his “I Have a Dream” speech, specifically the quote, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." This is a wonderful quote of course- it’s one of the most iconic sentences in U.S. history.  But to compress his legacy and importance to the country into this singular quote distorts history and presents at least two problems.


The first issue is its use by the political Right to rationalize opposition to race-based ameliorative programs, such as affirmative action, and to justify the re-writing of U.S. history as one devoid of structural discrimination and racism.  On Martin Luther King Day in 2022, for example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott stated,

Nearly 60 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. articulated a vision of freedom, equality, & opportunity in his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. He inspired hope in our nation. And that beacon of hope & liberty still burns bright in Texas.

This, just weeks after Abbott had signed a bill that cut the requirement to teach the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery and the Ku Klux Klan from the curriculum in Texas public schools.  (A similar proposed bill that would have replaced the word “slavery” with “involuntary relocation” was somehow defeated in committee.) As James Baldwin once wrote, “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do”.


In Florida in 2022, Governor Ron DeSantis signed the “Stop Woke Act”, which restricts discussions in education about critical race theory and historical discrimination.  When discussing the legislation, DeSantis stated, “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. You listen to some of these people nowadays, they don’t talk about that.”

It’s revolting to hear someone so antagonistic to the African American experience – he refused to allow an Advanced Placement course on African American history in Florida high schools and later claimed that slavery benefited some African Americans - weaponize the words of King against the very multiculturalism he dreamed of.  [I wrote more about DeSantis’ attempts to eliminate discussions of race in our schools in a post on this site dated July 13th, 2021, titled “What the Hell is Going on in Florida, Part I”]:


Even former President Donald Trump got in on the action, claiming that critical race theory (of which I have to guess he knows little-to-nothing about) “goes against everything Martin Luther King has ever told us.” Most infamous was his tweet likening himself to King:

It was exactly three years ago today, January 20, 2017, that I was sworn into office. So appropriate that today is also MLK jr DAY. African-American Unemployment is the LOWEST in the history of our Country, by far. Also, best Poverty, Youth, and Employment numbers, ever. Great!

Good lord…


And it's not just politicians who misuse King’s legacy to justify their racism.  As I mentioned in my “Black Lives Matter” post on this site from June 2nd, 2020, in the heat of worldwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd, a popular meme circulated that had a picture of Martin Luther King. In the picture, MLK was shown walking arm in arm with other protestors, dressed in coat and tie, and the caption read: “never robbed one building, never robbed one store, never destroyed one town- changed the world”.  Not only is it false, but it also serves as a justifying ideology for bigots- it serves to demonize current protests while presenting a fanciful image of a time that did not exist; it provides a reason to shame current protestors, fighting for the exact same thing Dr. King was fighting for half a century ago. It insults and vitiates his legacy.


The other significant problem I see with an exclusive focus on the “Dream Speech” is that it glosses over the much more radical elements of King’s philosophy.  There are two avenues here specifically: his comments about the Vietnam War and The Poor People’s Campaign. 


A year to the day before he was assassinated, King gave his “Riverside Church” speech where he condemned America’s role in the Vietnam War:

A time comes when silence is betrayal, and that time has come for us ... I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government ... Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness ... We are met by a deep but understandable mistrust. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. This way of settling differences is not just. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. ...Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now.

King’s condemnation of American violence against people of color at home was unsurprising but expanding this criticism to peoples outside the U.S. was a radical departure that cost him masses of supporters, including, importantly, President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.  King was, at this point, moving on from focusing solely on civil rights for African Americans, to focusing on deeper linkages between marginalized folks at home and abroad.  Which brings us to the Poor People’s Campaign. 


In 1966, Dr. King began organizing a march of America’s poor to Washington D.C. to call attention to their plight and the lack of government interest in helping them- this, despite President Johnson declaring a “war on poverty” in 1964.  This was not to be a one-day march to and from the capital; it was intended to be long-term occupation, if necessary, until politicians addressed the needs of the poor.  King stated in 1967:

We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, 'We are here; we are poor; we don't have any money; you have made us this way ... and we've come to stay until you do something about it.'


The march did take place, in 1968, but unfortunately King was not alive to be a part of it, and without him, the impact was significantly lessened.  In March of that year, against many of his advisor’s wishes, he traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to assist striking sanitation workers.  Many in his camp felt he should spend the time continuing to organize the Poor People’s Campaign, but King felt the plight of the sanitation workers was a perfect example, a microcosm really, of what they were fighting for. And on April 4th, 1968, he was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel while talking with Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, and Ralph Abernathy. 


I’m not sure if we will ever truly know the role that King’s transition from a focus on ‘African American civil rights’ to a focus on ‘human rights for all’ played in his assassination.  But his increasing calls for the redistribution of wealth and a movement towards democratic socialism certainly garnered him an increasing number of enemies. 


The sanitized version of Martin Luther King that we are left with has no room for mention of his radical anti-imperialism.  Instead, the dominant contemporary understanding of MLK Day, from national politicians to elementary school teachers, focuses on a specious interpretation of his “I Have a Dream” speech as some sort of call for a colorblind society.  We would be better served putting into action the summation of what he stood for, which for me, is encapsulated in his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech:

We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order.


[Photo credit: David Jaffee]

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