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Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today is a day in which our country almost universally accepts Martin Luther King Jr. as a hero, a great man, and a man who fought for what is good and righteous.  We easily forget this was a hard-fought legacy, one that most contemporaneous white Americans found objectionable. MLK’s progressive views regarding race, poverty and the Vietnam War earned him a 75% disapproval rating in 1963 and only 36% of white Americans thought his work helped, “the Negro cause of civil rights.” Even after his assassination, 31% of people said that King, “brought it on himself.”

MLK’s standing in our collective memories has been simplified, sanitized, and broken up into small, digestible sound bites that pander to white comfort. Memes with King’s image in profile inevitably find themselves plastered all over social media and include iconic quotes that only call for love and peace. Classic examples include excerpts from the, “I Have a Dream” speech or the well circulated, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” While these quotes are part of King’s profound and extensive archive, they fail to paint a true and accurate picture of King as a scholar and a radical.

Unfortunately, while most of us can recite some of his more disseminated quotes, we fall short of remembering what Dr. King advocated during his lifetime. He viewed militarization as an evil, advocated for a $50 billion-dollar spending bill on education, condemned Capitalism, argued for reparations, and housing equality, among many other things. Often, Dr. King’s quotes avoid anything radical or even political, even though political reform was his life’s work.

This oversimplification of Dr. King’s legacy makes him digestible for many Americans but has done little to rectify the systemic issues King saw as hindrances of equality.  America ranks 15th in global literacy, more than 10 million children live in poverty, only 42.1% of black families own homes as opposed to 73.3% of white families (2019 census), and, on average, a black American is 4.8x more likely to be arrested than a white American, just to name a few jarring statistics. As a country, we have failed to understand MLK’s dream for our country and for our democracy, so instead of reading quotes that make us feel better, we should challenge ourselves to be uncomfortable. We collectively need to go deeper into the archives and read one of his more controversial speeches, such as “Beyond Vietnam,” of April 4, 1967 as well as listening to scholars who continue to contextualize and preserve King’s legacy.

It is easy to look back on the past and separate ourselves from those who demonized MLK but they aren’t that far in the past and they are not so different from us now. You may think that you would have sided with Dr. King, but statistically speaking, most of us would have been against him. We need to ask ourselves what today’s injustices are and challenge ourselves to learn more, to listen more, and support those doing the work. This year let’s try to understand MLK’s legacy and not weaponize his words against those whom they are meant to support. We should not demand peace, we should demand justice. Without justice, peace is merely a demand for silence from those fighting for equality.

“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.

Below are some great resources for learning about Dr. King as well as The Pan African History Museum USA’s African American Heritage Trail in Springfield, should you want to learn more about local history.
King Resources Overview | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute (

The Best of Our Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Resources | Learning for Justice


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