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?
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 depression. Not always “liberated” in terms of women’s equality. In other words, he was human. Complicated. Flawed.
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).
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.
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 associations. Read 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).
We live in another era when voting rights–especially voting rights for persons of color–are under heavy attack. Between voter-roll purges, gerrymandering, ID 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 time. Black 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 today! Advocate 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.
He developed a burning sense of the injustice of the system. Conservatives 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.
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.
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 income. Andrew 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.”
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.
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.
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!