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. “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.”