Is true meaning of King’s legacy lost?

Nearly 40 years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., some say his legacy is being frozen in a moment in time that ignores the full complexity of the man and his message.

“Everyone knows — even the smallest kid knows about Martin Luther King — can say his most famous moment was that ‘I have a dream’ speech,” said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Buffalo. “No one can go further than one sentence. All we know is that this guy had a dream. We don’t know what that dream was.”

King was working on anti-poverty and anti-war issues at the time of his death. He had spoken out against the Vietnam War and was in Memphis when he was killed in April 1968 in support of striking sanitation workers.

King had come a long way from the crowds who cheered him at the 1963 March on Washington, when he was introduced as “the moral leader of our nation” — and when he pronounced “I have a dream” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

By taking on issues outside segregation, he had lost the support of many newspapers and magazines, and his relationship with the White House had suffered, said Harvard Sitkoff, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire who has written a recently published book on King.

“He was considered by many to be a pariah,” Sitkoff said.

But he took on issues of poverty and militarism because he considered them vital “to make equality something real and not just racial brotherhood but equality in fact,” Sitkoff said.

Scholarly study of King hasn’t translated into the popular perception of him and the civil rights movement, said Richard Greenwald, professor of history at Drew University.

“We’re living increasingly in a culture of top 10 lists, of celebrity biopics which simplify the past as entertainment or mythology,” he said. “We lose a view on what real leadership is by compressing him down to one window.”

That does a disservice to both King and society, said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.

By freezing him at that point, by putting him on a pedestal of perfection that doesn’t acknowledge his complex views, “it makes it impossible both for us to find new leaders and for us to aspire to leadership,” Harris-Lacewell said.

She believes it’s important for Americans in 2008 to remember how disliked King was before his death in April 1968.

“If we forget that, then it seems like the only people we can get behind must be popular,” Harris-Lacewell said. “Following King meant following the unpopular road, not the popular one.”

In becoming an icon, King’s legacy has been used by people all over the political spectrum, said Glenn McNair, associate professor of history at Kenyon College.

He’s been part of the 2008 presidential race, in which Barack Obama could be the country’s first black president. Obama has invoked King, and Sen. John Kerry endorsed Obama by saying “Martin Luther King said that the time is always right to do what is right.”

Not all the references have been received well. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton came under fire when she was quoted as saying King’s dream of racial equality was realized only when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

King has “slipped into the realm of symbol that people use and manipulate for their own purposes,” McNair said.

Harris-Lacewell said that is something people need to push back against.

“It’s not OK to slip into flat memory of who Dr. King was, it does no justice to us and makes him to easy to appropriate,” she said. “Every time he gets appropriated, we have to come out and say that’s not OK. We do have the ability to speak back.”


  1. Elmo

    Justice is still denied to far too many people. Had Dr. King not been murdered he would in all likelihood continued the expansion of his quest for justice far beyond mere racial equality (which is still an as yet unrealized dream though great strides have been made toward that goal).

    The USA today is a land of unequal justice. That tells me that the true meaning has indeed been lost.

  2. Jenifer D.

    Crackers in Office

    Are the reason why we will never see justice served….fairly. BushCo does run D.C. like a stinking plantation; all, but, one or two of his staff are Caucasian with Condi being the token sister-girl who does his dirty work.

    Oh and last weekend’s Las Vegas Caucus? Talk about a raucous Caucus! Glad I didn’t stick around to see the ugly exchanges between folks; got that info from a neighbor who stuck around!

    Oh, flashbacks to my high school ASB elections!

  3. Flapsaddle

    WDC tokenism is bipartisan. The Kennedy administration, often touted as forward-looking, had only token black representation. IIRC, the only prominent black in the Clinton administration was the late Ron Brown, the Secretary of Commerce. Historically, the place where black people have long dominated in the White House is as the domestic staff.

    Are you suggesting that we need a quota system to ensure fairness?

    Most sincerely,

    T. J. Flapsaddle

  4. Rick Fuller

    Sorry to disrupt this love-fest for democratic equality and fairness for everyone. The reason why Martin Luther King Jr’s words ring hollow today is because his words represented TRUE democracy.

    Have a look around you. Does democracy really exist in the United States today? Do we not have a semi-dictator in Office who is ignoring public wishes and pushing thru his own policies – erm, I mean the policies of the Corporations/Capitalists.

    Democracy is dead under the Bush Administration – and quite possibly under a Hillary Clinton administration as well. Look at how Bill embraced Boris Yeltson’s “democratic” reforms (…which were anything but, and in reality, they were corporatist/capitalist free-market reform which absolutely despises democracy) – the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree folks, and if elected, Hillary will continue what 43, 42, 41, and 40 have all started.

    Unfortunately, Dr. King’s words are merely a fantasy for lovers of a truly democratic society – which the United States of America is not.

  5. SEAL

    Keith: I agree and hope that his speach willbe aired nationaly. My understanding is that Obama writes all of his speaches. You can tell that is true by watching and listening to him. They sound genuine, not like he is reading.

    I find it silly that Clinton claims victory in Nevada when Obama earned one more electoral vote than she did. We need to get behind this guy in the primaries. He is the only person that can stop Hillary. Edwards should stop his useless campaign and throw his support to Obama. That way, if Obama should win the nomination he could select Edwards as his VP. That would be a great ticket.

  6. keith


    As I said, regardless of your politics, what Mr. Obama had to say to us as a nation yesterday was moving.

    For the better part of my life (I’m now pushing 60), I’ve been a Republican conservative, with political views that have consistently been somewhat left of Atilla the Hun.

    Not any more.

    NEVER in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be publicly heaping such praise on the words of a Democrat running for President.

    But, the “total war”, “Constitution as toilet paper” and “spend like there’s no tomorrow” tactics of Mr. Bush and his ilk have totally turned this once arch fiscal and social conservative completely “off”. George W. Bush’s grand plans for our nation can only be characterized as downright dangerous, not to mention disgusting.

    And, yes, I gather that Mr. Obama wrote most of what he said, although my hunch is that he included all or part of his normal “stump speech” in the middle. I did notice that there were some times when he wasn’t referring to his notes. I also didn’t see a teleprompter there for him to use, so at least part of what he was saying must have come out of his head….or, more probably, his heart.

    Like you, I’ve now soured on BOTH the Clintons AND the Bushes. In fact, if you’ve read any of my comments posted here over the last year or so, I’ve since soured on ALL of the “Republicrats” now running our nation.

    Clearly, the Bush and Clinton dynasties have had ample time to turn our nation around. And, as Mr. Obama said in his speech, the politics of personal destruction practiced by both the Bush and Clinton camps over these last 20 years have done nothing but further divide us as a nation. In fact, over they years, there’s been a “Hatfield and McCoy” feud-like quality to it all.

    But, clearly, the gestapo-like tactics of the current “frat boy” fundamentalist crackpot we now have sitting in the Oval Office (you know…the one who his just itching for a chance to now crown himself King) should be more than enough reason for people to say it’s time for something (or someone) completely different to lead our nation forward.

    The Bush and Clinton dynasties have had their time in the Sun. But, clearly, a new day is now dawning on our nation.

    And, as the old saying goes…”When the party is over, it’s polite to leave.”

  7. Jenifer D.

    Nothing is Suggested

    I’m simply stating that Caucasian cronyism is ramapant in D.C.; shrub’s Caucasian buddies are occupying positions they’re not qualified to fill. A quota system in place wouldn’t help, but, putting qualified folks in office would. That’s why I say D.C. is being run like a plantation and shrub is the cracker-in-chief. I just think he’s using his office to enforce his racial preferences.

  8. keith

    Mr. Obama’s words spoken yesterday (on the eve of Dr. King’s day) at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta raised the roof and touched all Americans.

    If he ever does become President, I do believe it will rank right up there as one of, if not THE most memorable speeches of all time given by any political candidate.

    That is, regardless of whether you agree with his politics or not, the simple fact that his candidacy has gotten this far is, itself, living proof that Dr. King’s dream is still very much alive.

    Clearly, and by any measure, Mr. Obama “hit one out of the park” in his speech there yesterday.

    Here’s the link: