mlk we shall overcome

Happy MLK Day! Five Facts To Refute The Sanitization Of Martin Luther King’s Legacy

It’s a metaphor for the complexities of contemporary America that a week that begins with celebrating one of the country’s most heroic Black activists will end with the inauguration of a racist, fascist, authoritarian white leader.

This MLK day — whose establishment was once contested in Congress because it would encourage young people to challenge the law and government — let’s remember the vibrant and fiery spirit of a leader who fought a hostile government his entire life. Let’s spread his revolutionary thought. Let’s refuse to allow his legacy to be co-opted by white moderates and liberals who claim that he stood for a passive, peaceful acceptance of the status quo.

In that spirit, here are six facts to celebrate the real legacy of a radical civil rights hero who sought constantly to speak truth to power:

1. Martin Luther King supported direct action and disobeying unjust laws in principled protest. When people talk about MLK as someone who favored non-violent protests, they often don’t seem to understand what non-violent action constituted: direct action and the open and public refusal to “obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices.” Often, legality is used as a stand-in for morality: if your protest or actions step outside the boundaries of the law, no matter how absurd, racist, or repressive those laws are, then white folk bring out the “I agree with your message, but…” arguments. MLK wouldn’t have stood for that, and his legacy looks a lot more like Bree Newsome or Ieshia Evans than writing letters to your senator.

2. Speaking of… Martin Luther King hated white moderates who favored “order over justice.” You may have seen MLK’s “white moderates” quote floating around, but it can never be emphasized enough. Here’s what he wrote in his letter from the Birmingham jail:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

3. Martin Luther King believed silent acceptance of injustice was complicity. One of MLK’s famous quotes is, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Let’s consider what that means for America post-January 20, 2017. We will spend the next four years watching ourselves and our friends and family lose healthcare, civil rights, human rights — and even their lives — under an oppressive administration. Celebrating MLK means committing to not staying silent and passive in the face of that.

4. Martin Luther King was against capitalism. White America has always embraced neoliberalism and capitalism with open arms. But, with Republicans in total control now, there will undoubtedly be an expansion of the worship of capitalism, particularly with the Wall Street parasites filling the incoming presidential cabinet. We will no doubt see the rejection of universal education and healthcare, the championing of tax cuts for the wealthy, and the triumph of the free market over human rights. MLK spoke out repeatedly against capitalism, and against the mentality that the poor must (or can) simply pull themselves up by the bootstraps to improve their lot. King declared that capitalism “had out-lived its usefulness” and emphasized that the re-distribution of economic power was imperative for racial justice.

5. Martin Luther King was assassinated by the US government because he was a threat  to the internal peace of the nation. His ideas were dangerous to those sitting in power, and continue to be dangerous today. Always ask yourself this: if the sanitized narrative of MLK is true — if he was so aligned with the views of white conservatives and moderates who love to throw his words at protestors like those in #blacklivesmatter — why was he terrifying enough to the white people in power that he had to be eliminated?

The truth of MLK’s radical politics is important to remember not just to preserve the legacy of a great man from co-optation by those he opposed most. It’s important, too, because it’s in this spirit that we’ve got to fight the injustices that will occur post-January 20. Let’s remember today that MLK encouraged us to not remain silent in the face of injustice; to disobey unjust and cruel laws; to oppose moderation and “negative peace” in favor of true egalitarian justice; to demand the redistribution of economic power; and to remain a dangerous thorn in the side of those in power who want to oppress and silence us.


Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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