Skip to Content

raceAhead: Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s been fifty years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

So much of the coverage of this sad anniversary is an exercise in grim benchmarking, focusing on how disappointed King would be in the world today. Disappointed in the complacency of both black and white churches, disappointed in the segregated state of the education system, disappointed in the intergenerational squabbling between activists about tactics and “respectability politics,” disappointed in the lack of moral courage of the haves to address the barriers facing the have-nots. Look for more on this in the links below.

And yet, in so many ways, his spirit is being increasingly reclaimed, even as his words have been misused.

Consider Dodge Ram’s super bowl commercial, which used a voice-over of one of Martin Luther King’s last speeches with images of people helping each other and ended with the phrase “Built To Serve” and the Ram logo. The outcry was immediate and pointed. “Black people can’t kneel and play football but MLK should be used to sell trucks during the super bowl. Unbelievable,” said comedian and YouTube personality, Akila Hughes.

The truth is, King is much more popular now than he was then. This opinion piece from Reverend Jesse Jackson shows the price he had been paying for his conviction before he died:

As he sought to move beyond desegregation and the right to vote, to focus his work on economic justice, antimilitarism and human rights, the system pushed back hard. In the last months of his life, he was attacked by the government, the press, former allies and the military industrial complex. Even black Democrats turned their backs on him when he challenged the party’s support for the war in Vietnam.

A growing number of Americans had a negative view of Dr. King in the final years of his life, according to public opinion polls. A man of peace, he died violently. A man of love, he died hated by many.

It’s worth spending some time thinking about what life will be like fifty years from now, particularly for those who are doing some version of his work, even though it’s hard, even if you’re misunderstood, even if you’re hated.

I’m not only thinking of the organizers, marchers, canvassers, and preachers, but also the number-crunchers addressing wage gaps, software engineers working to remove bias in hiring, and executives making the difficult decision to explain to their shareholders that it should matter to them if transgender people can use the bathroom of their choice in peace.

Employees, customers, and investors are asking increasingly asking corporations to right the wrongs of their own business past while fixing the parts of society that remain woefully broken today. What will the outcome of this work be fifty years from now? Will the work have been worth it? “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” wrote King in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

On Point

Did America’s moral courage die with Martin Luther King?Richard J. Reddick, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at The University of Texas at Austin, reminds us that our social ills remain similar to this moment fifty years ago, a reality that should alarm us deeply. “The way forward is to underscore that racial divisiveness is morally abhorrent, and to deliver electoral consequences to those who endorse it,” he says. He points to the Moral Mondays movement, led by Rev. William J. Barber, and movements supporting Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights, #MeToo and #NeverAgain as reasons to be hopeful. “As an educator, I see a generation of youths inspired to act—through organizing, protests, and direct action—to shape an equitable world.”Fortune

Will we always be this polarized?
Jelani Cobb reminds us that the fear of a permanent separation between black and white lives was very much top of mind fifty years ago, bolstered by the Kerner Commission report, published five weeks before King’s death. The report was ordered by the Johnson administration to help understand a spate of racial riots, and it came back with an unflinching analysis that separate and unequal lay ahead. “[W]hat white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it,” they said. In his excellent analysis of King’s legacy, Cobb ends on a positive note. “[A]mong the most striking aspects of the #NeverAgain movement is its young members’ ability to see a common predicament despite their different backgrounds—to acknowledge what King called the ‘inescapable web of mutuality.’”
New Yorker

The intergenerational tension in the fight for civil rights
Community organizer Bree Newsome has been working for years addressing voter suppression, weighing in on the symbolism of the Confederate flag, and speaking out on police violence. In this piece she speaks poignantly of the mixed messages she has gotten from older activists, who often decried Black Lives Matter’s “leaderless structure” and who overlooked the power of the women who were doing the work. “The tensions between generations of civil-rights activists have centered largely on a debate over tactics,” she explains. The modern movement rejects “respectability politics,” the notion that black people must be respectable to earn civil rights.“Wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated while wearing a suit?” she asks “The idea that changing our clothes would change our circumstances was troubling,” she says.
The Atlantic

The Woke Leader

The walk from Selma to Montgomery today
You may remember Rahawa Haile’s long walk on the Appalachian Trail. But moved by the 2016 presidential election and subsequent menacing developments (she cites the swearing in of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general as particularly alarming) the writer decided it was time to walk again. “I traveled to Selma because the fury in me had nowhere left to grow,” she said. The 54 mile Historic Trail along the Jefferson Davis Highway is peppered with markers of key events like where people camped, and tributes to heroes of the movement. Haile prepared for her walk like a seasoned athlete – proper shoes, sunscreen, gnat control, Google maps – and the contrast was jarring. But walking, against traffic, gave her a chance to see the ghosts of the Confederacy and Jim Crow up close and in slow motion. “In a walk predicated on all that the civil rights marchers had gained, everything black communities had lost in the years afterward lay equally apparent,” she says.

What would Martin Luther King think of today’s education system?
Eve Ewing writes about Dr. King’s dream deferred for education equality in The Atlantic, an issue which appeared to be secondary to his work on employment, housing, and voting rights. “Although many of the educational fights of King’s era were local and legislative, we can infer from his writings and speeches that his hope for the educational future of America’s black children was more ambitious than desegregation alone,” she writes. But even by that measure, the condition of America’s schools would be a disappointment. Segregation in the South is worse than when King was alive, with students of color languishing in increasingly segregated schools and white parents engaging in “opportunity hoarding” by placing their children behind barriers of privilege. “[H]e imagined a country in which black people could enjoy the full benefits of citizenship and human potential. If the legacy of this King is our measuring stick, we have failed.”
The Atlantic

A performance artist once shook the hands of 8,500 sanitation workers to thank them
I’ve long enjoyed the idea of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s work, which has been described as “a process of participatory democracy that unites people in open dialogue.” It’s a mix of writing, performance, and sculpture, much of which was in service to the idea that valuing the people who maintain our society would be a radical act. It never occurred to me before that her 1969 Manifesto for Maintenance Art was in some way, a continuation of the work that Martin Luther King had been doing when he died. She kept it up. Starting in 1979, she traveled around New York City for a piece called Touch Sanitation, to shake the hands of 8,500 sanitation workers as an acknowledgment of their essential role in the world. She later became an honorary Teamster and an artist-in-residence at the Department of Sanitation.
Broken City Lab


We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people…
Martin Luther King, Jr.