On Monday, Jan. 16, the nation will come together to celebrate the achievements of Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most prominent and impactful civil rights activists up until his assassination in 1968. To this day, King’s contributions to the civil rights movement are taught in history classrooms and represented in literature, art and film.
But many experts believe King’s vision has been misappropriated and whitewashed over the years—that his more radical beliefs and broader contributions to the movement are overshadowed by a few lines in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
Ashleigh Lawrence Sanders, a professor of African American history who researches Black cultural history and collective memory in the United States, shares insight on King’s fuller legacy, his trajectory as an activist, and why people tend to boil him down to a few simplistic words and phrases.
In what ways has Martin Luther King’s legacy been misappropriated and misused?
In the decades since King’s assassination, many public figures have been desperate to claim or use MLK’s words and legacy to bolster some cause of their own. Some of these figures seem like the very same people who would have likely opposed King’s own movement in his lifetime.
For example, we’re currently seeing politicians and influencers leading the battle against teaching accurate and inclusive forms of history education, quoting just that one snippet of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to justify this cause. The quote about judging people by the “content of their character” and not the color of their skin has been particularly misused to suggest that MLK imagined a colorblind society rather than one where racial justice matters.
Using King to critique those who single out structural racism is probably the height of this misappropriation, especially considering how often King wrote about the persistence of structural racism and the “debt of justice” owed to African Americans because of it.
How has the celebration of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech overshadowed his other many contributions to the civil rights movement?
This speech has persisted in people’s memories because it happened at the March on Washington, one of the most well-known protest marches in our nation’s history. King and his co-authors knew this speech would be given in front of a national audience, so it was intended to strike a unifying tone that harkened to a shared American dream—one that King and other Black Americans could not realize.
Yet, I would guess most Americans have never heard the entirety of that speech. Many don’t know that the “March on Washington” was actually called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” and that the march’s demands included an end to police brutality and demands for fair employment and decent housing.
Beyond that, many people also haven’t read much of King’s other speeches or works, where he advocates for guaranteed income and strongly opposes the war in Vietnam. By plucking convenient lines from the “I Have a Dream” speech, it de-radicalizes King’s much broader contributions and his own trajectory as an activist as well.
Resources to broaden your understanding of MLK’s legacy
What to watch
Watch the documentary series Eyes On the Prize to learn about King’s full career and the dozens of other men and women who risked so much of their lives to protest for civil and human rights.
What to read
Read King’s own words: “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the entire “I Have a Dream speech,” the “Beyond Vietnam speech,” the “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution sermon” at the National Cathedral, and King’s haunting speech right before he was assassinated “I've Been to the Mountaintop.”
To understand the fuller final ideological version of King, read his book Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community? and Austin C. McCoy’s article “The Time Is Now for the ‘Radical Revolution of Values’ That MLK Called For.”
What did King mean when he said Americans needed to undergo “a radical revolution of values.”
In that line from King’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, he speaks of a revolution of values in our nation that involves moving beyond militarism, profits and property and toward centering people. He discusses the dangers of glaring wealth inequality, imperialism and capitalism.
This is King at his most radical, not the King people often quote and use—the King that started the Poor People’s Campaign, not only in recognition of the limitations of what civil rights legislation could do economically for African Americans but also the multiracial nature of poverty in the United States.
In what ways has America achieved King’s 1967 vision? In what ways has it failed?
Well, I would say Americans, the people rather than the nation, have carried on King’s vision in many different ways. I think we see various organizers and activists carrying on the tradition of civil disobedience that King believed in and practiced. We also see many people organizing around multiracial anti-poverty campaigns such as the new poor people’s campaign, anti-debt movements, as well as a variety of anti-war movements. Various municipalities have experimented with guaranteed income, which is something King also advocated for as an answer to poverty.
Overall though, the United States still has not solved many of the issues King outlines in his 1967 speech. He has a particular line that says “a true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.” I don’t think the nation as a whole has arrived at that point yet—in fact there are many people, including prominent politicians, actively resisting any kind of reflection of this sort.
How has King’s legacy impacted protest culture?
For better or for worse, when people think about protest, they think about MLK. Starting at an early age, King was involved in some of the most famous protests and protest marches in this nation’s history, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, the Selma to Montgomery marches, etc.
King also believed in nonviolent civil disobedience. And while many folks hated King at the time, and thought of him as an agitator, many people now have decided that the way King protested was the only and right way to do it. So we see King being used to shame people who do not protest that way.
This happened even during his lifetime in the 1960s, when urban rebellions and uprisings occurred in Northeastern and Midwestern cities in response to incidents of police violence. When reporters wanted King to publicly condemn those protesters, he reaffirmed his belief in nonviolence but famously said, “I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
Despite his belief in civil disobedience, even King understood that conditions had produced desperation that led to desperate actions.