The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down almost 52 years ago. Depending on where we live, we’ve been observing the holiday that honors him for 34 years, as of today. There are wide variations in the ways people observe (or don’t pay much heed to) this holiday. But really. How should we honor Dr. King’s legacy?

This quote from Dr. Martin Luther King reads, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
King’s words ring as true now as ever. Senators, are you listening? (Image courtesy of PassportCamps)

What did Dr. King stand for?

King is known as a civil rights activist and a key leader in the struggles of African Americans to break the shackles of the Jim Crow era. He certainly was those things. He found his forum as a Baptist preacher, at a time when the church was the center of nearly every black community (a place of empowerment since Reconstruction and before). 

But his influence and his message soon reached far beyond the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. A prolific speaker, writer and seemingly-tireless advocate for civil rights, voting rights, peace, and the empowerment of the poor, he also was a scholar and thinker. 

And more of a socialist and anti-war activist than many in America wanted to accept (neither then, nor, in many ways, still today). He was subject to bouts of depressionNot always “liberated” in terms of women’s equality. In other words, he was human. Complicated. Flawed. 

This quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says, "Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice."
(Image courtesy of QuotesGram)

We shouldn’t be surprised. Nobody’s an icon in real life. But in light of his complicated nature, how should we honor Dr. King’s legacy? I’d say the key is looking to his core values–the ideals he returned to again and again in his life. These are racial equality, as well as his work against poverty (which fueled his socialist thought) and war (noted for his devotion to nonviolence, he also spoke out strongly against the Vietnam War).

Racial equality

We are very far from King’s vision of a diverse society untainted by racial injustice. If anything, recent years have seen a resurgence of white supremacist sentiment and a bloody wave of hate crimes along with it. If you hate hate crimes, perhaps you’d like to support the nemesis of hate crime perpetrators.

How should we honor Dr. King’s legacy? Well, first of all, we can stand up against hate in our own personal lives.

White folks, we have a big responsibility in this area. To start with, we need to about the diversity within our own communities. Refuse to listen in appalled silence or titter weakly when someone cracks a racist joke or makes a racially insensitive comment.

Educate ourselves about white privilegeinstitutional racism, and the many ways that microaggressions and cultural appropriation wound and inhibit others. That’s base-level, elementary stuff.

Beyond that, we white folks need to consciously expand our lives and our circles. Welcome and support persons of color in our workplaces, our places of worship, and our associationsRead the work of diverse writers (buy their books!)

Voting Rights go hand-in-hand with racial equality

One of the hardest-fought campaigns of the civil rights era was the effort to achieve equal voting rights for African Americans. The white supremacists who held a lock on the portals of power in those days would literally kill to prevent black people from voting (the contrast with King’s nonviolent approach was part of what made the Civil Rights Movement so moving to people all over the world).

This quote image from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says, "So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind--it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact--I can only submit to the edict of others."
(Image courtesy of Medium)

We live in another era when voting rights–especially voting rights for persons of color–are under heavy attack. Between voter-roll purgesgerrymanderingID requirements, and other shenanigans designed to disadvantage the poor, there is lots of corruption to fight. It will take advocacy by everyone to fight it!

How should we honor Dr. King’s legacy?

Concrete steps we can take? Support voting rights for all. That includes felons who’ve done their timeBlack communities have been decimated by a prison-industrial complex. Their lobbyists and lawmakers who want to be seen as “tough on crime” developed a system that unfairly targets impoverished (mostly black) communities.

Voting rights were a key goal of the civil rights movement. They’re still highly relevant todayAdvocate to your legislators. Support the League of Women Voters. And for pity’s sake, vote yourself, to elect candidates and causes that support equality!


Dr. King was fighting poverty by supporting the Poor People’s Campaign when he was assassinated. But poverty is at least as institutionally entrenched now as it was then.

Even King himself (a college-educated member of the black middle class) was originally unaware of how profound poverty could be in the US, until he visited a black school in an impoverished rural community in the Mississippi Delta. There he saw the results of food insecurity for himself. He was, in the Christian sense, convicted by what he saw. From that time forward he held a special place in his heart for the poor.

This quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. says, "It's all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his bootstraps."
King observed many systemic forces trapping people in poverty, even when they strove to prosper (Image courtesy of United Way of Southeast Missouri).

He developed a burning sense of the injustice of the systemConservatives then as today speak of “personal responsibility.” They see it as primary in determining someone’s prosperity or poverty. To King, this is a flawed analysis.

 He argued for changes to the system itself. In the latter part of his life, King increasingly saw the problem of poverty as an inescapable failing that is intrinsic to any capitalist economic system.

This quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. says, "I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few."
King’s work against poverty likely fueled his interest in socialism, which dates back at least to his studies at Crozer Theological Seminary and his study of the work of Walter Rauschenbusch. (Times Live, South Africa)

King’s embrace of socialism

During the 1960s, the US reached the height of the Cold War with the Soviets and plowed deeper into the Vietnam War against communism (more on that later).

Within a decade or so of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign to root out what he saw as a communist infiltration of the USA, socialism was deeply unpopular. Dr. King’s embrace of it and his antipathy to the Vietnam War meant he was seriously unpopular in much of America at the time of his death.

Socialism remains “a dirty word” today in some quarters, but half a century after King died, some segments of the economy see it as an interesting proposition.

This quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. says, "The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income."

The more progressive wing of the Democratic Party has fielded several candidates who embrace socialistic economic strategies, including Bernie Sanders, who labels himself a “democratic socialist,” and another who espouses a basic minimum incomeAndrew Yang calls it the “Freedom Dividend.

How should we honor Dr. King’s legacy? Whatever your opinions on the best ways to combat poverty, it’s certainly true that advocacy, donations, and volunteerism to aid the poor are always needed.


Aside from his socialist bent, King’s opposition to the Vietnam War earned him a lot of enemies. Given his commitment to nonviolence his opposition should surprise no one. And with the hindsight of history we can see that he made some good points, although some might not accept his assertion that “we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam.”

This quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. says, "The time is always right to do what is right."
No stranger to opposition, Dr. King followed his convictions on the Vietnam War, despite the cost to his reputation. (Image courtesy of PassportCamps)

But have you done a serious review of the decisions, assumptions and motivations that led our nation’s leaders into that war? Unfortunately, it bolsters his opinion that “we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam.”

Testing weapons on civilians? Unfortunately, yes.

He also was right that the US was testing weapons on the Vietnamese people. The Vietnam War became an ugly arena for the widespread use of chemical weapons. CS gas was deployed to drive combatants out of tunnels, but they often asphyxiated or were left with lesions on their lungs.

Agent Orange had been used as a defoliant before Vietnam, but never so widely as a weapon. The US contaminated almost a quarter of South Vietnam with the stuff, which decays into dioxin, a persistent carcinogen. The environmental and human destruction persist to this day.

While napalm had been used in a limited way during World War II and the Korean War, it was widely deployed against both Vietnamese civilians and Vietcong fighters. Although President Nixon later tried to convince the US public that napalm wasn’t being used on civilians, there were too many journalists in-country, and too much of it was dumped over too broad an area to support that lie.

This quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. says, "The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government."
King’s opposition to the Vietnam War won him little favor. (Image courtesy of Veterans for Peace)

The most horrifying weapons-test of the Vietnam War era never happened, however: a Defense Department consultant group discouraged testing the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam strongly enough that the idea was (thank goodness!) scrubbed.

How should we honor Dr. King’s legacy? In my opinion, we all have an obligation to advocate for diplomacy over strutting arrogance and saber-rattling. Ways to promote peace? Contact your legislators. Demonstrate, if you’re so inclined and have the opportunity. Vote for rational candidates who take a measured approach to conflict resolution.

It’s also important to remember that peace begins at home. In our families and in our communities, intelligent communication and our commitment to de-escalation of violence (including violent words) sets a peace-friendly tone.

How should we honor Dr. King’s legacy?

There are many ways to honor King’s life and work. I think one of the best is by remembering what a complex, courageous, and deep-thinking person he was. His memory endures in part from the brilliance of his writing and the complexities and deep morality that drove him.

He can’t be reduced to a symbol of just one thing, if we’re honest. And there’s no telling how differently we would remember him, if he hadn’t been killed in the middle of his work.

This quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says, "He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I 've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get ther with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I'm happy tonight."
He didn’t get there with us. Indeed, we’re still a long way from getting there. But the hope in his vision and the power of his courage offer ideas about how we should honor Dr. King’s legacy. (Image by Heidi Yosinski/Penn State News, via Laura Schulenberg Cole)

IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to Passport Camps, for the “measure of a man”and “do what is right” quote images. I appreciate the Sunday Times of South Africa for the “necessities from the many” quote image, and QuotesGram, for the “valley of segregation” quote image. Thanks are due to Medium, for the “power of the vote” and “guaranteed income” quote images; to Veterans for Peace, for the “purveyor of violence” quote image, and to design student Heidi Yosinski, Penn State, and Laura Schulenberg Cole for the “mountaintop” quote image. I’m indebted to you all!