The legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been whitewashed and gentrified to depict him as someone that only advocated for unity and peace (Essence). But during his life, many denounced him as an extremist (Time), and the FBI considered him a threat to democracy (Stanford). Neither narrative speaks to his radical views nor his lasting commitment to racial equity. It’s our responsibility to honor his legacy beyond what’s been deemed “appropriate” by education and media.
The attack on education curriculum about our nation’s history underscores the urgency of honoring our leaders with the nuance their work deserves and holding ourselves true to the changes they wished to create. One way to start is to absorb all of the words in his speeches and literary work (beyond the quippy quotes you’ll see on social media today). Here are our recommendations for where to start.
• Dr. King’s family has specifically requested that people refrain from the standard Martin Luther King Day celebrations unless federal lawmakers pass voting rights legislation. Take the pledge to preserve voting rights for all.
• Watch a movie dedicated to Dr. King’s legacy. Some recommendations: “Selma,” Ava Duvernay’s depiction of the historic march; Clark Johnson’s “Boycott” on the start of the civil rights movement; or “Shared Legacies,” outlining historical lessons of Black-Jewish cooperation.
• Explore our list of books that honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech in Oslo, Norway 1964
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up.”
Letters from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. 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.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
This is a speech that’s often quoted without context. Responding to criticism made by the “A Call for Unity” clergymen, who wanted racial equity to be pursued by the courts, not the people, King defends the tactics of the civil rights movement and admonishes those who take a moderate stance against the injustices Black people face.
Beyond Vietnam, April 4, 1967
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
This is not only a scathing admonishment of the U.S. participation in the Vietnam War but also a critique of the racial inequities of capitalism and our nation’s inability to invest in its own people before spending on wars abroad.
The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement, September 1, 1967
“Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting which is their principal feature serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse.”
In a speech delivered to the American Psychology Association’s Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King, Jr. analyzes the social sciences behind the civil rights movement. He notes that protests against an unjust criminal justice system, poverty, and other inequities are necessary to dismantle whiteness and white supremacy.
The Other America, March 14, 1968
“And I use this title because there are literally two Americas. Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. In this America, millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America children grow up in the sunlight of opportunity. But there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair”.
This speech centers on the economic disparities of our nation and makes clear the correlation between racism and economic oppression. Dr. King also defends the anger and injustice that Black people are experiencing, naming that “certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots.”
I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, April 3, 1968
“Now about injunctions: We have an injunction and we’re going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there.
But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech.
Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.”
This was Dr. King’s last speech. In it, he celebrates both the emotional and economic strength of the Black community and rallies for everyone to “give ourselves to this struggle until the end.” He names that he’s unsure “what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers,” but that he’s happy because he’s had the opportunity to witness the power of the civil rights movement across the country. The next day, he was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee.
Dr. King delivered this speech at the Memphis sanitation strike, where sanitation workers advocated for fair wages and humane working conditions. As we highlighted in these articles from last year, the intertwined fights for economic and racial justice are just as urgent today.
Letter to Coretta, July 18, 1952
“I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet, I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human systems, it falls victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today, capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”
In this letter to his wife, Coretta Scott, King plays with the idea of socialism after reading Edward Bellamy’s book Looking Backward. Martin Luther King, Jr. talks about the eventual end to America being a capitalist society and his hopes for a transition to a system that creates an equitable “distribution of wealth and brotherhood that transcends race of color.”He points out that a change in these social systems will take time, writing, “Capitalism will be in America quite a few more years, my dear.”