MLK Day Should Be About Continuing Dr. King’s Radical Project

On Martin Luther King Jr Day, rather than embracing a sanitized, deradicalized King, we remember a committed foe of not only racism, but economic inequality and militarism.

Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King in an interview, October 20, 1965.

On January 20, 1986, half a million people looked on as the inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade wended down Peachtree Street and turned into Auburn Avenue, in downtown Atlanta. Thousands marched, singing civil rights movement anthems, in a scene that reminded the New York Times of the 1950s and 1960s.

On this day, however, police supported rather than menaced marchers. Coretta Scott King, widowed seventeen and a half years earlier, led bands, unionists, war veterans, 280 different groups, and some of the city’s homeless population through the city streets. Movement veteran and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young watched as crowds overflowed into the street and temporarily halted the procession, blurring the boundary between spectators and marchers. Begun in the early afternoon, after four hours the parade finished at King’s crypt on “Sweet Auburn,” as the avenue was affectionately known.

The celebrations did not end there. Promoted with the slogan “Living the Dream,” the holiday’s reach extended across the nation. That night, NBC televised a two-hour program of concert highlights from Atlanta, New York, and Washington, DC. Musician Stevie Wonder organized the events and edited footage for the two-hour national television extravaganza. Eight thousand radio stations across the nation played excerpts of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at midday, and the New York Times reported that “church bells tolled, choirs sang and citizens paused” to reflect. Andrew Young aptly summarized the mood: “The leader may have departed . . . but the dream continues.”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s legatees were, however, divided. Coretta Scott King and Andrew Young hoped that the holiday would keep King’s dream alive, inspiring Americans to complete his unfinished work. Thus, they worked to foster a mood of celebration and avoided overt politicking.

Others, however, voiced concern over the commemorations’ tone. Disturbed by the festive atmosphere, Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond reminded Americans of King’s radical civil disobedience. Wyatt T. Walker warned against being “oversentimental and romantic.” They were concerned that the celebrations smoothed over King’s legacy, making him palatable for a nation unwilling to comprehend his critique, a nation unwilling to adopt his entire agenda as its own.

Since 1986, those seeking political and social reform in the United States have used it to advance their cause, despite its original apolitical tone. Those who have wanted to maintain the status quo have used it to argue that King’s dream has been fulfilled. In the process, King’s words have often been distorted beyond meaning, his virtues exaggerated and his deficiencies weaponized. Today, every effort to memorialize him is fraught with contradiction: to remember King risks forgetting his radicalism.

“A Massive Case of National Amnesia”

During the mid-to-late 1960s, while raising four children — Yolanda, Martin, Dexter, and Bernice — Coretta Scott King reemerged as an activist in her own right. She also became the prime guardian of her late husband’s legacy, particularly after initiating construction of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. As Coretta commissioned monuments, she continued her activism, vigorously opposing apartheid in South Africa and lobbying for full employment, among many causes.

After establishing and completing the King Center, Coretta lobbied Congress for the King holiday. Activists and politicians forged the holiday from a long history of black resistance, married it to an American holiday tradition, and elevated an African American man to the previously segregated pantheon of American heroes.

King is the only American citizen, black or white, personally identified by name on the US calendar. And despite its early apolitical tone, the holiday developed into a day on which activism could flourish. In King’s name, protesters have denounced events ranging from the 1991 Gulf War to incidents of police brutality. On King Day, movement veterans and their heirs in Black Lives Matter have taken to the streets, while conservatives sometimes receive cool or hostile receptions from black church congregations. Though impossible for the eponymous holiday to be all its promoters hoped, the “national spotlight,” as historian David Chappell described it, shines on King’s message every January.

Leaders of the 1963 March on Washington posing in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Memorial. August 28, 1963. (US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons)

Yet while it is easy to find words of acclaim for King it is difficult to find similar praise for the King holiday. Scholars maintain that it fails to recall King’s radicalism. Vincent Harding, a former speechwriter for King, Christian pacifist, and historian, argued that those who fought for the holiday allowed “King to become a convenient hero, to try to tailor him to the shape and mood of mainstream, liberal/moderate America.” Harding elaborated, “The price . . . is the development of a massive case of national amnesia.” G. Russell Seay Jr. argues that King has been domesticated and “fossilized.”

The concern about King memorialization, as exemplified by the holiday, is that it typically portrays his agenda as complete. Dianne Nash, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), feared that such exaltation of King would deter future generations from becoming activists — either because future injustices would not seem as dire as those in the past, or because youth would simply wait for the next great leader rather than start their own movement. Either way, Nash viewed the idolatry of King as potentially demobilizing.

Jermaine McDonald argues that King’s legacy is contested, not domesticated, because the nation’s collective memory is deeper than and not as fixed as critics claim. Those who invoke the radical King can ignore King’s own history of strategic compromise and downplay the instances when he moved with caution (for instance, during the 1964 fight over seating Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates at the Democratic National Convention). In this light, King is an inconvenient hero not only for liberals and conservatives, but at times even progressives and radicals.

Coretta Scott King and Andrew Young repeatedly emphasized their view that King was the leader of the movement. They portrayed King as a master tactician, brilliant orator, theologian, preacher, and radical activist, among other descriptions. However, as Clayborne Carson writes, the depiction of King as “the initiator and sole indispensable element in the southern black struggles of the 1950s and 1960s” is mythical.

Carson argues that the myth overemphasizes the importance of King’s leadership qualities at the expense of other “large-scale social factors” that propelled movement. As it is an oversimplification to say that Eugene “Bull” Connor, the 1963 commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Alabama, and Jim Clark, the sheriff who led the 1965 attack on civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, were solely responsible for racism, it is an oversimplification to claim that King was solely responsible for fighting racial oppression

A Short History of MLK Day

On April 8, 1968 — just four days after King’s murder — Democratic congressman John Conyers of Michigan introduced King Day legislation to the House of Representatives in an effort to commemorate not only the recently assassinated King but also the movement in which he had figured so prominently. Federalizing the commemoration of King’s birth became Conyers’s cause, and along with the Congressional Black Caucus, he negotiated with white liberals and skeptical white conservatives in Congress, whose votes were required to pass the legislation.

After fifteen years of wrangling, Congress finally approved MLK Day legislation in 1983. The following year, lawmakers established the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission to coordinate the first King Day and to organize a celebration with appeal to a broad spectrum of American society. Coretta Scott King chaired the organization, which included representatives and senators from Congress, presidential appointees, and selected leaders from businesses, unions, religious organizations, civil rights groups, and the entertainment industry. For eleven years, the commission organized the holiday until it disbanded in 1996 after Dexter Scott King, Martin and Coretta’s second son, attacked it from within.

Mugshot of Martin Luther King Jr. following his 1963 arrest in Birmingham, Alabama. (Birmingham, Alabama Police Department via Wikimedia Commons)

Congress tasked the commission with inventing new traditions. The commission thus aimed to create a popular holiday in a majority-white nation, while fulfilling a historic desire for a “black” holiday. The commission also sought to continue King’s work in the fields of integration and nonviolence. First, it attempted to integrate the US calendar, furthering a process Congress initiated by declaring the first national holiday honoring an African American. To achieve this aim, the holiday had to be established in every state, and Americans from all ethnic backgrounds would have to participate in celebrations. Second, Coretta Scott King, the commission’s leader, insisted that the holiday propagate the philosophy of nonviolence. Coretta hoped that a focus on both themes, integration and nonviolence, would set the template for a popular annual celebration.

With President Reagan’s encouragement, the commission also sought to imbue the holiday with idealized American values — namely, respect for the Constitution, Christianity, and the rights of the individual. Yet these concepts were promoted at the expense of King’s condemnation of economic inequality and militarism. Further, King Day’s opponents threatened to undermine its universality by depicting it as a “black” holiday, only relevant to African Americans. As Reagan eroded the federal government’s commitment to civil rights laws, white and black conservatives manipulated King’s words in ways antithetical to the fallen leader’s philosophy.

King’s “I Have a Dream” speech provided early inspiration for the holiday, particularly during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Politicians of all persuasions used King’s “dream,” yet conservatives focused almost exclusively on this aspect of his legacy. Reagan used King in such a manner to promote individualism, capitalism, and conservative Christianity. Bush too prioritized a narrative that highlighted individual valor within the civil rights movement, as opposed to collective endeavor.

When King’s former colleagues rejected the officially sanitized image of King the Dreamer — shorn of radicalism — their dissatisfaction laid the foundation for reform. Following his election in 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton legislated for a day of service that shifted the holiday’s emphasis from the dream to volunteer community service, tilting King Day a little more toward activism than mere commemoration.

Progressive Democrats like John Lewis fostered a new King image: King the Drum Major. In his February 4, 1968, “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, King had vociferously denounced not only racism but economic inequality and militarism. Although the holiday did not become radical per se, pointing to the Drum Major highlighted the fact that King’s agenda remained unfinished, particularly in relation to economic inequality. As King had encouraged his parishioners to devote themselves to humble acts of service, so the commission encouraged Americans to emulate his deeds by serving their local communities. All citizens, no matter how lowly, could work toward the completion of King’s unfinished agenda.

Bill Clinton also found meaning in the “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. Yet these reforms complemented a suite of neoliberal economic policies, in vogue at the time, when mainstream US politicians, Clinton very much included, wanted to cut taxes and welfare spending.

A Day for Dissent

Martin Luther King Day emerged as part of a move to memorialize the civil rights movement. Proponents hoped that the memorials would serve as vigilant reminders of past oppression and unwavering guardians of rights won. Should those rights come under attack, or should new struggles arise, the memorials would connect the past to present-day battles.

Yet completed memorials, usually the products of compromise, are often less frank about injustice than what their creators had hoped. And civil rights memorials have not been immune from such compromise. Indeed, Congress ratified the holiday during the Reagan presidency, subjugating it to the dictates of people who had once denounced King when he lived. The holiday had to meet their approval, given only after King had been deradicalized.

To win the holiday fight, activists downplayed these uncomfortable truths, instead arguing that King’s “victorious” crusade merited commemoration. They molded a positive consensus, emphasizing an uplifting and unifying King image, ripe for co-option by all. That Americans commemorated King’s birth, not his death, contributed to the positive feeling.

All told, it is reasonable to wonder whether such memorials support or undercut the struggle for racial and economic justice. But despite their limitations, memorials do provide a forum to express dissent and even to help society move closer to the attainment of progressive goals. Civil rights memorials challenge the predominance of memorials honoring the Confederacy. Martin Luther King Day provides an annual platform to highlight King’s lesser-known works and words and denounce the misuse of King’s legacy.

King Day is an evolving and dynamic memorial that can affect and reflect society. Though people cannot touch it like a statue, the holiday is unrestricted by a specific location and so can be observed almost everywhere. Its righteous message can transcend state and even — true to King’s internationalism — national borders.