Celebrating The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the New Generation of Social Justice Advocates
Several years ago I visited the childhood home of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My family and I walked along the historic corridor of the famed Auburn Avenue where he was raised. I stood beneath the iconic blue and white neon-light sign of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. At the time they were renovating the church and no one was supposed to be inside, but one of the caretakers could see how enthralled I was so he let me step inside. This iconic cathedral had a palpable feeling of sacredness. This was perfect timing for me. I was in the midst of deep re-evaluation about my own work, life and purpose, and I needed this kind of cathartic inspiration.
I walked with my family to the reflecting pool that holds the tomb of MLK. There’s a deep, sacred stillness there. We weren’t in a rush. We just stood there and took it all in spending several hours there that day. Visiting so many spaces where King walked, spoke, and lived, it was something to reflect on the impact of this great man. I remember there was something I read in the museum that gave me even greater insight into the astoundingly unique context in which this great man was reared.
Martin Luther King Museum
A display in the museum tells a story about Martin Luther King Sr. (who pastored Ebenezer for forty years) and his influence on his son. King Sr. had taken his seven-year-old son, Martin Jr. to the shoe store. When they walked into the shoe store, they sat down near the front of the store and waited to be served. The white store clerk asked them to move to the back of the store, and then they would be served. King Sr. retorted, “These seats will do just fine. Thanks.” The clerk insisted that they relocate, but King Sr. would not be moved. He barked back saying, “We will buy shoes from these seats or we won’t buy shoes at all!” Then, he grabbed Martin Jr. by the hand and stormed out of the store. Please understand, this was in the mid-1930s. Black folks weren’t supposed to talk to white folks like that. But we shouldn’t expect anything less from a King, should we?
The fact is, Martin Luther King Jr. couldn’t have been born, in a better place or at a better time. He was born at the start of the Great Depression, when Americans were collectively forced to buckle down and display the kind of grit and determination that would ensure survival in those tumultuous years. Survival demanded strength, and Americans rose to the occasion. But it’s not just when he was born, but also, where he was born. Atlanta, Georgia in general and Auburn Avenue in particular, was a sort of Southeastern Black Wall Street in its own right. In those days, it was known as “the richest negro street in the world.”
Martin Luther King Sr. attended Morehouse College as did numerous other black male community leaders (especially clergy), and so it was no surprise when Martin Jr. enrolled at Morehouse. The unique difference for Martin Jr. was that he enrolled when he was only 15. Dr. King was in the right place at the right time. He was raised, by privileged and powerful parents, in an iconic neighborhood, during an iconic time period in history. It’s as if angels were curating his life story.
1967: A Controversial King
When Dr. King was killed, he had just released the last book he wrote entitled, Where Do We Go From Here: Community or Chaos? In it, Dr. King lays out a progressive and controversial platform for 1967 and beyond, and expounds upon what he believes is at the core of the black struggle. He argued that the courageous engagement and activism of white liberals is essential to ensure that black people are able to leverage the rich resources of America for the good of the most vulnerable people. King argued that racism, materialism and militarism is choking American progress, and that in order to ensure the health of our nation and the most impactful benefits to the largest group of people, America would have to revisit its values. Furthermore, he contended that America would need a “restructuring of the architecture of America,” signaling the need to reprioritize government spending to benefit poor people. And this is where his ideas are probably the most progressive and controversial.
The year was 1967, and Martin Luther King Jr. was publicly calling for a guaranteed income for all Americans. King asserted that such a measure would help to ensure that with a basic median income, citizens would have the kind of relief and peace of mind that would empower them to be their best selves; to take on innovative, altruistic and creative jobs that would push society forward. This was at the heart of the Poor People’s Campaign. Thus, it’s no wonder that Dr. King was in Memphis, organizing and protesting with sanitation workers when he was murdered. He was laser-focused on helping the most vulnerable Americans gain access to the trappings of a life above the poverty line.
He closed the book talking about the need to organize in labor unions, organize to build social and political power, and the keys to developing the new black political leaders. Keep in mind that the year was 1967.
Remembering Martin Luther King
In 1993, twenty-five years after Dr. King was assassinated, national leaders organized a memorial service to honor his life and acknowledge his death at the church in Memphis where he spoke the night before he was killed. At that event, then-President, Bill Clinton gave remarks where he infamously invoked the memory of Dr. King to chide the black community for falling short of the aims of the Poor People’s Campaign. Clinton had prepared his remarks in the form of how he imagined Dr. King would grade the progress of black people since his death.
In the speech, Clinton riffed on broken families, violence and crime in the black community, and so on. The irony here is that while he was making those statements, he was actively involved in creating the kind of legislation that would help to further dismantle the structure and security of the black community in general and black families in particular. Wrong place, wrong time Mr. President.
Looking to King for the Way Forward
When I read Where Do We Go From Here, I felt like Dr. King laid out a blueprint for activism, political engagement, educational and economic development that would take us well into the 21st century. Now, I’m mindful that African-Americans have made innumerable gains since the death of Dr. King across numerous sectors of American life. But, as I read the book I had the overwhelming sense that this is the book that we need right now. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time when he wrote it in 1967. Maybe we needed Clinton to get out of the way. But then came 2008, and since then, it’s become fairly obvious that there were several people who were well acquainted with the blueprint.
Barack Obama reached the zenith of political attainment and brought along with him several minority leaders to the administrative cabinet. While there are several shortcomings of the Obama presidency, he is still lauded for the glass-shattering diversity that his senior leadership team represented. Then in the wake of Obama, came a steady stream of national, local, state, non-profit, educational, religious and judicial leaders in the tradition of Dr. King, with a commitment to the uplift of the most vulnerable people. From Ayanna Pressley to Steven Reed, from Cori Bush to Justin Fairfax, it appears that there are actually quite a few people who read the book.
Right On Time
That day, when my family and I were strolling up and down Auburn Avenue, I noticed Ebenezer’s new sanctuary; situated right across the street from the original one. The famous former pastors had been dead for approximately forty years at that point. Yet, the new pastor had been there for several years already. His name? Dr. Raphael Warnock, and it appears he showed up right on time. Since 2005 he has served with distinction as the Pastor of Ebenezer, and I remember when the rumblings started that he was going to make a run for the Senate. We all knew he could win.
With such a hotly contested senate race, it’s providentially poignant that there was also another new political giant on the scene in Stacy Abrams. Abrams’s Fair Fight Action organization was mobilized into the highest gears following her controversial loss in the Georgia gubernatorial race just a couple years before. Her creative strategies to combat voter suppression were right on time.
The Signs of the Times
Suddenly, our collective attention was affixed to the immediate white supremacist backlash just a day after Warnock’s historic runoff election victory. Violent rioters stormed our nation’s Capitol in a public expression of desperation against the unstoppable shift of power dynamics in our country. Nevertheless, Abrams, Warnock, Bottoms, and a coalition of other new freedom fighters are all positioned perfectly in the right places, at the right time to carry the legacy of Dr. King…and to hold up the arms of the first black female Vice President of the United States in Kamala Harris. It’s apparent that these new leaders have emerged at the perfect time to combat this revamped brand of nationalist hatred and bigotry. Furthermore, the advocates of the new Poor People’s Campaign, led by Dr. William Barber and others, have utilized the kind of strategies that I’m certain would make Dr. King very proud.
I’d really like to hear President Clinton’s take on that report card illustration now. I’m certain that several “grade change” forms would be in order, as well as a formal apology. I’m confident that Dr. King’s work and legacy has never been more alive than it is right now.
Dr. King was right, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I believe it does so in the fullness of time. May God help us all to be positioned in the right place, at the right time, to stand up for justice and equality, and to empower those around us.