By Josh Hughes
On the third Monday of every year, Americans remember the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., advocate, civil rights icon, and change agent. It’s a day for Americans to reflect on the effects of Dr. King’s life and his work. Across the nation, many schoolchildren are given the day off, and many adults use the day to volunteer in their community to honor the legacy of Dr. King. Our group had that opportunity this morning, volunteering with CityYear (a project of AmeriCorps) at Roosevelt High School in NE Washington DC. There, we had the unexpected opportunity to hear from the mayor of the District of Colombia, Muriel Bowser, and the 10th United States Secretary of Education, John King. Both of the speakers implored us to live our lives in the mold of Dr. King, and to work diligently to make our communities better. We heard similar overtures from many members of congress, across the partisan spectrum. Most beseech us as Americans to remember and honor Dr. King, but it’s worth asking, “what MLK should we remember?”
I’m glad that I learned about Dr. King early in my elementary education. However, as a white kid in a white area in a white state, I recognize that the things that I learned about Dr. King hold a different significance than perhaps for a black kid in Atlanta—Dr. King’s home. The MLK that I learned about was that of a non-violent, civil rights agitator who worked with many other groups to achieve equal rights—pretty straightforward and easy for a kid to understand. For many Americans, myself included, this is probably the extent of their knowledge on Dr. King, enough to get by, but hardly enough to understand a nuanced man deeply embroiled in a complex issue. The 2016 election reminded us that despite the election of Barack Obama twice, America is still deeply divided on the basis of race, and that our understanding of racial politics could use improvement. White Americans especially have a duty to seek out additional information to understand an issue they don’t personally experience.
So I’ve done a little bit of reading over the past day and in some free time, and I’ve been interested in what I’ve found. Dr. King was certainly a non-violent organizer, but he was hardly the consensus civil rights leader that he is portrayed as today. In fact, in 1966, the Gallup organization found that nationally Dr. King was viewed favorably by 32% of Americans, and unfavorably by over 62% of Americans. In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King famously called out the white moderate, saying:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
To me, it’s worth asking and discussing the kind of legacy we want to honor in regards to Dr. King. Admittedly, King was a nuanced man who was far from perfect, and it is wrong to expect all Americans to remember and honor his legacy in the same fashion. As we move forward this week, I want to remember Dr. King’s more radical legacy– he who was unequivocally dedicated to social justice not only for his fellow African-Americans, but who recognized the intersecting nature of racial and economic injustice.
I want to honor the Dr. King who criticized the American government for spending more and more on military programs, but less and less on social uplift programs. I will honor the legacy of the man who called out white Americans for assuming capitalism was built on ‘hard work’ alone, and reminding them that it was slaves that built this country. I will remember the man who reminded us that an “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”