by Paige Watkins

Each year, on the third Monday of January, this country has set aside a day to celebrate and honor the legacy of civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. We see his pictures across our social media accompanied with quotes and reflections on his life and the movement that surrounded his work. We participate in one-day community service projects that are planned in remembrance of King’s work in community building. But so often, the legacy we celebrate is a sanitized and romanticized version of the truth. Dr. King is often solely remembered as a non-violent leader committed to fighting against segregation in the Jim Crow South. But that was only a part of King’s career in direct-action, social justice. The reality is that he was much more nuanced than we were taught. He was a leader committed to justice for all oppressed people and was committed in a way that was uncompromising and completely radical for his time. Dr. King’s tactics were not as respectable as history books teach us. If history books taught us King’s true legacy we would know more about his dedication to addressing the issues of structural racism and poverty. We would know about those who worked with and around him, who organized actions right alongside him. We would know that King’s assassination was a direct result of his determination to fight against racism and classism and the American status quo.

Today, we still see many traces of King’s legacy. We see his encouragement of direct action in the recent social justice movement that has been recently sparked. Black Lives Matter initially grew from the community response to the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri this past summer into a national and international movement in defense of the humanity of Black lives. The organizers in this movement have spent months protesting and coordinating national actions of civil disobedience. These leaders have utilized social media and people power in order to galvanize Black people and allies into action against police brutality, judicial impudence and racially motivated violent attacks. 

It is not difficult to find very real parallels between this fight for social justice and the decades of the Civil Rights Movement of which King was at the forefront – in both the actions of the organizers and the response from those in opposition. Dr. King was adamantly against the economic, political and social inequities faced by Black people all over this country and, until the time he was assassinated, fought unwaveringly for the end to oppression and marginalization of Black and poor people. The sit-ins, marches, and boycotts that he led in partnership with so many other activists and leaders were just as disruptive, just as readily opposed as the protests, die-ins, marches and boycotts of these past 5 months. So today, we do not accept the whitewashed sanitization of Dr. King.

Today, we reclaim his legacy. We reclaim his voice and words spoken out against white supremacy and racism. We reclaim his support and advocacy of grassroots direct action. We reclaim the truth of his radical and unapologetic leadership. We reclaim our history and both the hope and pain that go along with it. We must honor Dr. King’s legacy through community service, but we must also honor his legacy through action. We must do our part to educate and mobilize our communities in order to finish the work that was started by activists like Dr. King and the many other men and women who have worked for justice of our people. What can you do to support the fight for social and economic justice? How can you #ReclaimMLK today?