Never Forget Martin Luther King Jr.’s Demands for Justice
Cherry-picking King’s quotes tells half the story. It’s time to highlight the entirety of his remarkable legacy.
This year, Americans should take an extra moment to reflect on Martin Luther King Jr.’s compelling message. He delivered speeches that inspired people from all walks of life. His campaign challenged the status quo. King wanted America to become a country that judges people on their character as opposed to skin color. However, some people interpret his campaign in different ways. It matters what Americans tell themselves about King because his rhetoric provides a framework for ongoing discussions about civil rights.
King rejected the theory of American exceptionalism and instead embraced American potential. The change did not come easy during King’s lifetime, and it won’t come easy now. However, those who think that America is perfect as it is may never genuinely appreciate King’s message.
If peace means keeping my mouth shut amid injustice and evil, I don’t want it.
If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.—King (1963)
King made fiery speeches and paid with his life for his determination. He got into a lot of good trouble. Officers arrested him 29 times. Despite the pressure, King organized marches to protest police brutality, which is an issue still plaguing Black communities. He also championed the Poor People’s Campaign to address the racial wealth gap; it remains the same as it was in 1968, during his lifetime.
Every year like clockwork, some historians and pundits cherry-pick phrases from his speeches. They portray King as a consensus builder rather than a radical champion for equality. Just as rice farmers bleach grains for preservation, many people whitewash King’s legacy. Without proper historical context, Americans may seem entirely reasonable for celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. as a consensus builder. After all, his speeches overflowed with messages of peace, love, charity, and equality.
Yet, many people celebrate MLK Day without realizing most Americans despised him during his lifetime: 75% of Americans disapproved of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights advocacy. He certainly could not win any popularity contests, particularly among the majority of White Americans. King polarized many because he valued justice over peace. Even peace has its limits.
If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated, and segregated, I don’t want peace.—King (1956)
Many use portions from his famous “I Have A Dream” speech to insist he promoted a colorblind ideology. Again, to focus solely on that is to miss other important points. King spent his life trying to expand civil rights for Black people. He wanted Americans to consider what type of nation they could aspire to be: a truly multiracial democracy.
King clarified the difference between negative and positive peace. A positive peace refers to the presence of justice, and a negative peace refers to the absence of tension. Claiming that King meant “peace” as in “go home and stop marching” doesn’t jive right with his record. No one should use King’s words to quell the modern civil rights movement, yet they do.
The power of that legacy is used by white voices to minimize the systemic violence of racism, sow complacency and resentment at majoritarian sacrifice and to characterize the work of his life as complete rather than abandoned.—Byrd (2019)
King wanted to live in a country where race could not divide us. However, wanting to live in a post-racial society and living in one are not the same. By depicting his message as an insistence on race-neutrality instead of insisting on dismantling racist systems and beliefs, the people who embrace only half of King’s message leave nothing but bleached grains behind.
While many portray him as a moderate, King had ideals that many Americans still consider radical. Many would continue opposing him if he had survived and was still championing these policies. While there are generational differences in how Americans view this issue, 58% of the people interviewed in a 2020 poll conducted by NPR/Marist/PBS Newshour viewed socialism unfavorably. Even though King did not consider himself a socialist, he did not believe America’s purely capitalistic society could offer racial, economic justice.
Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of Capitalism, but in a higher synthesis.—King in a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, August 16, 1967 (Halper, 2019)
When people use King’s conciliatory tone to gut-check advocates, they do so while watering down his life’s work. He never expected Black people to stop talking about race or suffer in silence. In the aftermath of Jim Crow legislation, systemic racism blossomed in new ways. And after witnessing an insurrection at our nations’ capital, many no longer wonder where White supremacy went — it never left.
Many White Americans still believe that racism died with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, Black people live in a country that remains segregated. Systemic racism still plagues all Americans, and King’s message inspires Americans to keep fighting for structural change that addresses inequality.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. — King in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” (1963)
Where do we go from here?
King used peaceful civil disobedience because he believed we should change American values to reflect a multiracial democracy. The Black Lives Matter protesters followed in his footsteps, bringing attention to the racism Black people still endure. This year, we should reflect on how far we have come as a nation and how much more we have to go to make King’s dream come true. The pandemic exposed long-standing racial disparities. Last year, Black Americans bore the brunt of the fallout from Covid-19, including job loss, closed businesses, and missed educational opportunities. As Americans begin a lengthy recovery, many Black people wonder if “build back better” will include them. Whether America stares into the belly of the beast to confront systemic racism depends on what citizens do now. As MLK Day makes another rotation, it is essential to consider King’s real message.
The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? — King in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” (1963)
Halper, K. (2019, January 21). “The 11 Most Anti-Capitalist Quotes From Martin Luther King Jr.” Retrieved October 29, 2020, from https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/01/21/11-most-anti-capitalist-quotes-martin-luther-king-jr.
King, M. L., Jr. (1963, August 28). “I Have a Dream.” Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm.
King, M. L., Jr. (1956, March 29). “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious.” Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/when-peace-becomes-obnoxious.
King, M. L., Jr. (1963). “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Retrieved August 4, 2020, from https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.