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03/21/2018 05:45 am ET

5 Ways You Can Do Justice To Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy Today

“Let’s not render King as the same sound bite we always hear of ‘I have a dream.’”

As the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination approaches and people across the country seek to celebrate his memory, it is a key time to reflect on what King’s legacy was ― and wasn’t ― and what it might look like to really honor him today.

Time and again, educators and activists, including King’s daughter Bernice, have pointed to how King’s words have been whitewashed and mischaracterized over time, with children taught a sanitized version of King’s activism in schools, contributing to a deliberately distorted view of the civil rights leader as more of a pacifist, less of a radical than he was.  

People often quote King preaching about love ― his famed “hate cannot drive out hate” quote is all over Instagram ― while they less often cite his more anti-establishment statements, such as his calling out the “white moderate” in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”

Each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, politicians post on social media honoring MLK, all the while pushing policies like voter restrictions that disenfranchise people of color.

In January, President Donald Trump recorded an address praising King’s “dream of a world where people are judged by who they are, not how they look or where they come from” ― just days after making racist remarks lamenting the influx of immigrants from “shithole countries,” including Haiti and African nations.

Meanwhile, those who stand up to injustice today, from kneeling NFL players to Black Lives Matter protesters, are often vilified for being too extreme, much like King was in his day.

As the country honors King’s life, cut too short on April 4, 1968, HuffPost spoke to activists and educators ― from Women’s March leader Tamika D. Mallory to professor Wornie Reed, who marched with King in the 1963 March on Washington ― on how people can really do justice to King’s legacy now.

1. Don’t whitewash King’s words

“I think we have done a very poor job of honoring King’s legacy. In fact, it has been seriously mischaracterized…. One of the things they teach to the children is King is a man of peace. I’ve heard him speak or preach 35 or 40 times. He only mentioned peace once. He did not advocate for peace but for justice. He used to advocate [that] until there was justice there would be no peace.”  

― Wornie Reed, professor on race at Virginia Tech and civil rights activist, who marched with King in the 1963 March on Washington

“Our history books lionize Dr. King as a visionary leader, but in the 1960s he was publicly labeled a terrorist by those in power. Things are not different today with the current generation of civil rights visionaries.... Dr. King knew that he would sacrifice everything, including his life, for the liberation of black people from the system of white supremacy. Yet today many remember him only [as] a vision of black children and white children playing side by side, and nothing more.”

― Tamika D. Mallory, Women’s March co-leader and activist  

One of the things they teach to the children is King is a man of peace... He did not advocate for peace but for justice. Wornie Reed, professor on race at Virginia Tech and civil rights activist

“Usually individuals fall into what I like to call the ‘three word’ rhetoric we apply to black leaders ― we remember Malcolm X as ‘by any means necessary’ and King as ‘I have a dream’ ... I would just say let’s not render King as the same sound bite we always hear of ‘I have a dream.’

― Charles Woods, educator with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

“The radical Dr. King is less comfortable and less conforming to popular ideas about leadership in the ongoing black liberation movement.”

― Charlene A. Carruthers, activist and national director for Black Youth Project 100

Just like Birmingham’s firehoses wouldn’t stop King and those who marched alongside him, attempts to water down King’s radical roots won’t turn us around.”

― Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, activist with the Movement for Black Lives and co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center

Chicago demonstrators protest for higher wages and better working conditions on the 49th anniversary of the murder of Martin
Scott Olson via Getty Images
Chicago demonstrators protest for higher wages and better working conditions on the 49th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 2017. King was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, while in town supporting striking black city sanitation workers. 

2. Fight poverty and economic injustice

“When King was killed in Memphis, he was there to help sanitation workers protest the fact they weren’t getting equal pay. Nowadays you’d have to stand up against women and black people not getting equal pay in a lot of professions. He would be a big proponent of why the unemployment rate for black people is higher than for any other race in this country.”

― Charles Woods

“What would he be doing here now? He would be pointing out that the poverty rate is higher now than when he gave his life for it. What he was working on was the Poor People’s Campaign. His main thing was to go to Washington and to close it down if they did not respond to the demands to reduce poverty in this rich country.”

― Professor Wornie Reed

Nowadays you’d have to stand up against women and black people not getting equal pay in a lot of professions. Charles Woods, educator, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

“A lot of the reasons he was assassinated were his critique of capitalism, militarism and racism. Those intersections are at the core of the American empire today ― the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how much money is going to militarizing police, how black folks still crying out about violence are not getting resources. I think a lot of his legacy is very relevant in terms of the types of conversations we have to be having about racism, capitalism, militarism and how we move forward.”

― Dante Barry, co-founder Million Hoodies

“Dr. King supported efforts for reproductive and economic justice, he was anti-war and believed in the power of organizing everyday people.”

― Charlene A. Carruthers

It’s easy for many to say they would have marched against segregation in the 1960s, but many have not seen today’s marches against the unjust killing of black people as for them. Tamika D. Mallory, Women’s March co-leader

3. Stand up against mass incarceration

“What’s the one thing he would be pushing for? I think more than anything else by far it would be attention to the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system has always been used to manage and control blacks ― and it’s doing the same thing right now.”

― Professor Wornie Reed 

“His lasting legacy should include the injustice of mass incarceration, and how black people are more highly incarcerated than other races. Someone who’d want to honor his legacy would stand against the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration ― those would be dear to heart.”  

― Charles Woods

Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement stage a 'die-in' outside the National Civil Rights Museum on Jan. 16, 2017 in M
Mike Brown via Getty Images
Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement stage a 'die-in' outside the National Civil Rights Museum on Jan. 16, 2017 in Memphis, Tennessee. 

4. Step off the sidelines and take action ― especially if you’re white

“[King] started speaking a lot about how it’s liberal whites who are the problem. We know how racist folks stand ― but it’s individuals on the fence, who think the issues don’t affect them and pick and choose what they want to tackle. And he was getting really frustrated with those individuals, who would keep the status quo going by not fully standing up against something.”

― Charles Woods

“The work is not glamorous, it requires great sacrifice. It’s easy for many to say they would have marched against segregation in the 1960s, but many have not seen today’s marches against the unjust killing of black people as for them.”

― Tamika D. Mallory  

“There’s a performative activism that has emerged in the last years ― it became a fad to be considered an activist, like ‘I’m taking pictures in front of a march.’ I don’t think that would live up to King’s legacy, as someone who was uncompromising, radical and strategic.”

― Dante Barry

King was dangerous in part because of his ability to call to our attention the evils of society and to shine a light on those who were standing on the sidelines. We are hard at work calling people off the sidelines. King told us why we couldn’t wait, and our job is to wake people up to the fact that we still can’t. Today, we invite you into a radical vision as imagined by black women, as implemented by thousands of black youth; a vision that shifts power away from white supremacists and away from the stall tactics of white moderates.”

― Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson

There’s nothing the Black Lives Matter people do that [King] wouldn’t, and that he didn’t. Wornie Reed, professor on race at Virginia Tech and civil rights activist

5. Support Black Lives Matter

“There’s nothing the Black Lives Matter people do that [King] wouldn’t, and that he didn’t. They protest and demonstrate, that’s what he did. He didn’t ask for permission to do it. So if some of them break the law in their protest ― that’s what he did. It doesn’t hold water for five seconds that he wouldn’t support Black Lives Matter.”

― Wornie Reed  

“I personally think he would have backed Black Lives Matter. They’re nonviolent, they’re standing up against police brutality ― one of the issues King talked about in his ‘I have a dream’ speech ― and people don’t pick up on that. The things we are dealing with is nothing new ― it’s been going on since King’s era and previously. I think he would have backed Black Lives Matter as a movement bringing light to an issue disproportionately targeting black people.”
― Charles Woods

HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

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Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes On Faith
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