The Uses and Abuses of the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In January 1994, a week after the King holiday, I walked into the lobby of my dorm to listen to representatives from the Israeli School of Universal Practical Knowledge (ISUPK), a Black Israelite group. Someone asked about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr since the holiday had just passed; without missing a beat, the speaker said to the person reading the Bible aloud to the audience, “Go to Deuteronomy: 13. Read!” In a booming voice several verses were read about a “prophet” and “dreamer of dreams” who “shall be put to death” because he turned away from God. 

The representative from the ISUPK interpreted these verses as a prophecy directed at Dr. King and his Dream because he didn’t teach Black people to return to worship of the God of Israel instead of Christianity. Some of the students were highly offended and left, but I was intrigued. 

By 1994, I was firmly in the Malcolm X camp and not so personally invested in Dr. King as others. I share this story not because it represents my current attitude towards Dr. King, but I can say it made sense to an impressionable 19-year-old raised in the Black Church who was looking for answers about the state of Black America in the 1990s.

As a child born in the immediate aftermath of the King assassination and belonging to what music critic Nelson George deems the post-soul generation, the effects of King’s assassination were all around. Sections of the (majority Black) West End of Louisville were still burnt down after the riots in ‘68. Even as a young child I could see the pain of losing King in the adults around me. In elementary schoolpre-MLK holidayteachers instructed us to make handmade MLK birthday cards noting how old King would have been were he still alive. 

I also remember the push to make the King holiday a federal holiday. Listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” on the radio singing along with the chorus, “Happy Birthday to you.” Then in 1983, with Ronald Reagan’s signature (it had passed both houses of congress with veto-proof majorities) MLK’s birthday had become a federal holiday. By the time I started middle school, I was getting the third Monday off in January in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Next came the fight to recognize the MLK holiday at the state level. I vividly remember listening to Public Enemy’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona” in support of making the King holiday a state holiday in the last remaining holdout.

By 1994, however, King’s Dream seemed like a faraway fantasy. Drugs and gang violence had overtaken the mid-size city of Louisville, Kentucky. I watched in horror, like so many others, the taped beating of Rodney King, and later the L.A. riots in response to the acquittal of the four police officers. 

So, by the fall of 1993, I was primed for an alternate interpretation of Dr. King and his Dream, and “false prophet” worked well enough. It would only be during my graduate study that I began engaging the thoughts and words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in a serious manner. By then, however, the luster of the King and his holiday had worn off for many Americans (Black and white). 

By the late 90s and early 2000s, however, portions of the public were obsessed with ‘King the adulterer,’ ‘King the plagiarizer,’ and ‘King the leader of the patriarchal SCLC.’ Even within Black popular culture, in movies like 2002’s Barbershop, King and Rosa Parks were being removed from their pedestals for unrecognized and unsung heroes and heroines like Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old from Montgomery, Alabama who refused to give up her seat on the bus nearly a year before Rosa Parks. 

Within political discourse, however, King was still a powerful and potent weapon. On the right, Republicans were quoting King to oppose affirmative action, and anything related to continued expansion of civil rights on the basis of “the content of our character.” On the left, King was being stripped of his mythic shine as a repackaged radical opponent of neo-liberalism. It was a pitched battle for the right to control the mythos and image of King within political discourse.

As previously discussed on RD, American civic holidays, like the nation itself, are in a time of crisis. New holidays such as Juneteenth have been added to the federal holiday calendar, while others face renewed scrutiny and calls for abolishment. It seems one of the few holidays to pass through this era unscathed is the King holiday. Often, however, I’m forced to ask myself, “What does the King holiday mean?” Clearly, I’m aware of the rituals. There are the interfaith prayer breakfasts and services; civic and fraternal organizations (including King’s own Alpha Phi Alpha) sponsor events in his honor; and beginning in 1994 the King holiday was recognized as a national (later global) day of service. 

The “I Have a Dream” speech is referenced ad nauseum, ignoring King’s more radical and fiery rhetoric near the end of his life. As a society, we extol the virtues of non-violence and the collective fate of humanity, but still the King holiday seems to feel empty. In our current social and political climate that’s defined by division, where does the King holiday fit in? 

Books, articles, and think pieces abound pointing out that King’s legacy has been whitewashed in service to neo-liberalism. Those on the left emphasize King’s turn toward economic justice in addition to political enfranchisement. As such King is often cited as supporting any number of causes such as reparations and guaranteed basic income, as part and parcel of his Dream.

King’s legacy seems so malleable in the hands of American politicians and others, as his speeches and writing are cherry-picked for snippets to advance one’s cause. Perhaps, King is second only to Jesus in being so often cited by people with such varying social and political agendas. While it’s easy to dismiss conservative misappropriations of King’s legacy as merely the ahistorical and decontextualized use of his thoughts and ideas (e.g., King was a Republican) by the very political forces that opposed him in his lifetime, it seems King’s legacy is more often (and more successfully) deployed as a weapon against those who attempt to carry on his tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience. 

This represents the danger and dark side of the elevation of King into the American civic pantheon. The moral authority that King’s legacy is imbued with comes from his affiliation with the Christian tradition. His words and deeds are weighted as examples of the benevolent and true nature of the Christian tradition. The mythic King is deployed as the ideal American and ideal Christian in service to blunting any attacks on either institution. 

Not only is the civil rights movement collapsed into the legacy of King and the SCLC, but it’s also often incorrectly idealized as a uniquely Christian enterprise. The secular and non-Christian individuals and groups who participated are either marginalized or erased from the popular narrative. King’s legacy has been appropriated in service to American exceptionalism and Christian supremacy. In essence, to be a real Christian and real American is to be like the mythic King. 

In the years after King’s assassination, his opponents (and some allies) were relegated to the category of the “scribes and Pharisees.” Useful props to deploy to demonstrate the superiority of King’s approach of nonviolent resistance and integration. For example, the eulogy that former President Bill Clinton gave for Congressman John Lewis in which he praises Lewis for remaining a faithful disciple of King rather than joining Stokely Carmichael. 

Only when Black popular sentiment embraces his out-of-favor foes, such as the 1990s renewed interest in Malcolm X or the current popularization of Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. on the cable series Godfather of Harlem, do we see the depths of the Black freedom struggle and its multifaceted nature reemerge in popular narratives. When the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-police brutality protests are condemned as not “peaceful” enough, invoking the memory and legacy of King, we must continue to combat the weaponized King myth. 

King has been dead for more years than he was alive. Today when I teach courses in African American studies, Martin Luther King, Jr might as well be Frederick Douglass because so much time has passed. There is no longer an immediacy to his legacy and death. A woke student is more likely to “call-out” King for being problematicwhether because of personal infidelity or sexism and homophobia within the civil rights movementthan be enamored by his legacy. So it seems that events have come full circle. I am now responsible for teaching about the very human and flawed King to students who resent only having been taught about a dreamer of dreams.