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Martin Luther King Jr's Whole Legacy

Well it’s that time of year again, The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Season. So deck the halls, shoot those fireworks, and if you’re a politician remember to only quote the parts of him that agree with your agenda, and nothing else!

Also stores have special sales, I guess

You may have seen this, and I am not the first person to note this as a phenomenon, but it seems to me over the last few years that we hear a lot of people who do not support racial justice initiatives invoking the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The quote du jour is of course “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This is a good thing, obviously, and anyone would be correct to believe in these words! Yet to embrace the dream of MLK and the greater Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s while leaving behind the struggle (or in many more cases actively opposing them!) is to whitewash the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

That quote that you hear so often invoked when MLK is referenced is from the March on Washington in 1963. The I Have A Dream speech was the capstone oration of a day long… well march on Washington! Over 260,000 people attended, and you may be forgiven for thinking that meant that MLK was a highly regarded figure in his day. That the president wanted to shake his hand and grab a campaign photo and endorsement! That he would be invited on late night talk shows and the diverse crowd of people watching would cheer with glee at the sight of their hero on TV! However if you did assume this you would have very much assumed wrong, because while a Pew Research poll shows that 81% of people today believe that he had a positive impact on The United States (that seems low,) in the year of the March on Washington the same institution’s poll found that only 41% of people believed he was a force for good. At one point the FBI even penned a letter to Dr. King that encouraged him to take his own life! The year he was assassinated 75% of Americans disapproved of him and his legacy.

“Even if he wasn’t popular in the 1960’s, that doesn't mean that he would be unpopular today!” You may think, but before you do please take a look at this sign from The March on Washington and ask yourself how 50% of the population would feel about this sign today?


So that is one myth about MLK, the idea that he only stood for integration, and just wanted everyone to get along. A second and less talked about misrepresentation of his legacy is even more pervasive today, fact this article has already reinforced it, and you may not have notice. The March on Washington’s full name was actually The March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, and was propelled not only as a fight against segregated drinking fountains, but with intent for economic liberty as well.

That’s the whole picture

Of the 10 demands motivating the march, two of them are “7. A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed worker-Negros and White-on dignified jobs at decent wages.” and “8. A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living, (Government surveys show that anything less than $2 an hour fails to do this [that’s $20.70 in 2024 by the way.])” While the I Have a Dream speech is rightfully remembered, we have the responsibility to also remember all of the other groups and people who planned and led the march. This is a snippet from the organizing manual of the event. 

Look at all the union guys there! Makes me proud!

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for voting rights, and the end of segregation. As these were imperfectly addressed by Supreme Court decisions and the Voting Rights Act, he turned his primary attention to economic liberty for the poor. King co founded the Poor People’s campaign, which he described as “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.” The goal was for an organized, non-violent yet firm and disruptive protest to occupy D.C in the Summer of 1968. Unfortunately as we all know he would not see these plans through as he was assassinated on April 4th of that year while marching with striking sanitation workers in Tennessee.

Ignoring Martin Luther King Jr’s fight for economic equality is not a democrat vs republican issue. It is a bipartisan move to continue funneling money up to keep rich people richer, and poor people from advocating for themselves. If we are to defend and celebrate Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Day we must do so recognizing him for the whole of his legacy, including his fight for the poorest among us, and those oppressed by white-supremacist laws.

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