Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and as we take today to honor Dr. King— whether that’s through social media, parades, or community service— it is crucial for us to consider the legacy that he laid down for us. As the newest generation of activists, it’s up to us to not only reflect on Dr. King’s life, but to complete the unfinished business he left behind. And today’s first step is remembering Dr. King as he was— not only as a preacher, but a leader. Not only as a visionary, but a revolutionary.
Photo: The New York Public Library on Unsplash
In the year 2018, it’s easy to think that Dr. King’s work is long-finished. In fact, a majority of the country recently reported that they believed the country had done enough to give blacks equal rights. This statistic seems shocking at first, but less so when we consider that after all, we were taught a certain narrative in elementary school. We were taught that one man, through speeches and nonviolent protest, single-handedly ended racism once and for all. (We tend to gloss over the ending— the one in which Dr. King was murdered by a white assassin). This gives us a sense of complacency, as though society’s problems have been solved. However, a cursory look at today’s major issues— from police brutality to economic inequality— tells us, quite plainly, that such a viewpoint is not the case.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that Dr. King’s legacy has been heavily white-washed and sanitized. We often forget that Dr. King was not universally beloved during his lifetime. Throughout his career, Dr. King was targeted by hate mail and death threats. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover even referred to him as “the most notorious liar in the country.” However, the most deeply entrenched opposition didn’t always come from those who were outwardly racist. Civil rights fighters often encountered resistance from so-called moderates who supposedly stood for “law and order”— an interesting historical parallel to those who oppose today’s #BlackLivesMatter.
Photo: Malavika Kannan
Indeed, while Dr. King spoke of white and black brotherhood in his frequently-quoted “I Have A Dream Speech,” he also warned of the dangers posed by the white moderate in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” His observations of society feel almost prophetic today, in an age when sticking to the status quo feels equivalent to condoning bigotry. Thus, any attempt made by society to minimize the role it played in opposing Dr. King is a dangerous distortion of history. More importantly, it prevents us from having meaningful conversations about the role that society still plays in opposing progress.
Furthermore, many are surprised to learn that in addition to supporting civil rights, Dr. King was also an anti-war anti-capitalist who advocated for democratic socialism. He rightfully recognized that racism and poverty were intertwined, and he marched for living wages and job security in addition to integration. In a precursor to the aforementioned #BlackLivesMatter, Dr. King and his compatriots additionally battled police brutality— a fight which is far from over.
Thus, in our attempts to memorialize Dr. King, we tend to forget that the key battles that he fought still haven’t been won. And somehow, that seems to be the greatest injustice to his legacy of all.
Malavika Kannan is a sixteen-year-old Indian American, metaphor enthusiast, and history junkie. She plans to major in International Politics in order to help make the world a better place. Malavika believes in female empowerment, Kurt Vonnegut novels, and, occasionally, herself.