Martin Luther King: History in a 360-Degree Perspective

Many people forget that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s work in the Civil Rights Movement was only about 50 or 60 years ago. King was assassinated in 1968 after working to gather the Black community, people of color and other allies to heal the nation’s traumas of 400 years of slavery. King fought against segregation and his influence helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed unjust voting practices. But many people forget that King’s work still continues today with those fighting for the dream he spoke of in his famous “I Have a Dream” Speech. In that speech, King said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

While King’s mounting work made a stride towards a just society, the fact is that systemic racism still persists today, and rather than viewing the Civil Rights Movement and his work as a panacea moment in history, we can honor his legacy by listening to the voices of the Black community and the current Black Lives Matter Movement to continue to build the society King envisioned. At the USC Annenberg Center for Third Space, we stress the importance of having a 360-degree, a holistic view on an issue by using hindsight, insight and foresight; the same can be true when we analyze the progress of undoing systemic racism and seeing how past events and present injustices can be used to predict what the future would look like. 

In 2019 Kaitlyn Byrd, a writer for NBC News, wrote a piece entitled “Martin Luther King Jr’s True, Radical Legacy is Being Whitewashed by People Looking for Easy Absolution”. In this piece, Byrd explains how seeing King as solely a hero who saved everyone from evil can actually be harmful and prevent American society from obtaining true justice. 

“For white people, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. exists mainly as a mainstream portrayal of a saint of redemption. In this historical interpretation, Dr. King saved both black and white Americans from the evils of segregation, while overcoming the resistance of a few, powerful bigoted individuals with little more than dignified protests and the strength of his convictions.This Dr. King tells us that hate cannot drive out hate, that we should judge each other on the content of our characters, and that poverty and racism are their own evils. This Dr. King does not think us wrong as long as we do not have hate in our heart, doesn’t want us to dwell on each other’s differences and knows that what hurts white people also hurts black people. This Dr. King does not judge. This Dr. King does not see color. He does not ask for reparations. His solitary request is to act with love. This incomplete and inconsiderate legacy fuels the agendas of white people across the political spectrum, from open white supremacists to apathetic “allies.” Built from scraps of reality selected from his words and work, this imagined Dr. King does not endorse or exalt — it absolves” (Byrd, 2019).

Although Byrd acknowledged that King united White communities with Black communities and it is true that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, particularly in terms of the harm of upholding white supremacy in any way, this notion of King as a hero of history can often times lead people to forget that his work is not yet done and prevent further action to link racism to other issues in society such as “disparities in income, housing, justice and mortality…” (Byrd, 2019). 

“Too often the power of that legacy is used by white voices to minimize the systemic violence of racism, sow complacency and resentment at majoritarian sacrifice and to characterize the work of his life as complete rather than abandoned,” Byrd added. “Rather than shine a light on the ways our society has fallen short of its incredible promise, past and present, the brilliance of Dr. King’s aspirations are used to make invisible the perpetrators of common violence, the silent disapproval of white moderates and the disparities in income, housing, justice and mortality that have become no less acute with time” (Byrd, 2019). 

On Jan. 6, 2021 a group of Trump-supporting domestic terrorists stormed the US Capitol building with bombs, pitchforks and other weapons with the intentions to possibly harm congresspeople, hold them as hostage or even assassinate them as a result of Trump losing the election. Many have contrasted their too-peaceful treatment from law enforcement with the violent treatment received from Black Lives Matter protests in the Summer 2020 after the unjust killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and countless others named and unnamed in the media, as well as the treatment from law enforcement towards Black people and other people of color.

Bernice King, one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughters, wrote on Twitter on Jan. 6: “Thinking of and praying for the humans who protested out of love for Black lives who are still traumatized by how law enforcement and military harmed them during protests against racism and police brutality. For them to see what they saw in our nation’s Capitol yesterday…” (King, 2021).

The continuing link that contrasts the government’s treatment between these two groups is systemic racism and white supremacy that persists and reflects the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. John Lewis, a Civil Rights activist who marched with King in the March on Washington commented on the treatment by law enforcement in a Washington Post article by Jonathan Capehart. 

“Lewis told me he continues to think Trump ‘is a threat to our democracy and is a threat maybe even to the planet,’” Capehart wrote. “He also took a dim view of the president’s threat to unleash the military on American streets. ‘It was shameful. It’s a disgrace,’ said Lewis. ‘It’s not in keeping with the best of America” (Capehart, 2020).

Peniel Joseph, a CNN columnist, also agreed that the strength of modern social movements is where King’s legacy lives on:

“Martin Luther King Jr.’s resounding and living legacy informs a range of contemporary social movements fighting for civil and human rights for the most marginalized and oppressed populations in America and around the world. King defined a ‘beloved community’ as a place not only free of injustice, but a society that actively promotes an ethic of love, justice, and humanity in its legal, political, and civic life, as well as its religious, spiritual, and moral spheres” (Capehart, 2020).

We can relate this idea of actively working towards a just society to King’s words in Letter from a 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" (King, 1963).

In order to gain an understanding of why the rioters at Capitol Hill confidently ran into the buildings waving a Blue Lives Matter flag as they charged at Capitol police and why they were also condemning the Black Lives Matters protesters in the summer of 2020, one can use a 360-degree perspective to examine clues from each protest and what each protest group was trying to accomplish. 

A 360-degree perspective can also be used to tie these events together with systemic issues like racial disparities in housing, inequitable access to healthcare and environmental racism. 

“The issues of racism, poverty, voter suppression, housing inequality, unemployment, violence, and war that plagued King’s era remain,” Peniel Joseph wrote (Joseph, 2019). “However, the key difference between then and now is the evolution of the civil rights struggle from one dominated by a singular voice to a contemporary landscape featuring multiple leaders who, in the best tradition of King, are stirring national debate over the meaning of freedom, democracy, justice, and citizenship.” 

Thus, there is still work to be done before King’s dream is accomplished. We can fulfill his legacy by listening to modern social movements led by Black voices and other people of color. After all, how do you want to be remembered when people think about your actions in hindsight?