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Thursday, May 5, 2011


Contested Meaning: King’s Legacy and the Struggle for Social Justice

By David Paul Tahrir Thurston

Martin Luther King Jr. is a towering figure in U.S. history and politics.  His powerful but complicated legacy is claimed by figures from across the political spectrum.  It is a testament to the power of the Civil Rights Movement, that even politicians who actively attack gains of the movement, feel compelled to invoke King’s legacy.  The contradictory meaning attached to King’s life was exemplified during the funeral for his widow, Correta Scott King.  There, every living U.S. president convened to deliver pious eulogies on the enduring value of the work of both Martin and Coretta.  This tragicomic episode of political theater included George W. Bush, whose administration was infamous for its callous treatment of poor, black victims of Hurrricane Katrina.  It also included Bill Clinton, whose popularity runs high among African-Americans.  This is true in spite of the painfully inescapable fact that Clinton’s years as president witnessed a doubling of the U.S. prison population, which is disproportionately black, poor, and Latino.

Dr. King’s legacy is invoked still more forcefully as a precursor to the current presidency of Barrack Obama.  Visual art picturing the two together became legion during Obama’s inauguration.  One famous poster featured the phrase, “Martin marched, so Obama could run.”  Barrack Obama’s deeply flawed presidency is positioned as the natural era of a generation of struggle against racism and for social justice.  Barrack Obama, the grossly premature recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, poses as heir to Dr. King’s powerful legacy.

King’s legacy is also claimed by those of us fighting for social justice, whether in the movement to remold the criminal injustice system, the struggle for immigrant rights, or in the seemingly endless struggle to end the wars and occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Palestine, and Pakistan.  Obviously, it is impossible to know where King would have stood on the issues of our day.  Yet it is possible to look at the political trajectory of King’s own life, and attempt to draw lessons to serve us in the struggles of the moment.

The Martin Luther King who is memorialized in classrooms across the country during Black History Month is a pale reflection of the best of King’s life and work.  We are treated to endless repetition of his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech, as if the man’s life work ended on that historic day in 1963.  Yet King went on to draw very different conclusions about the character of U.S. society from those he espoused early in his political career.  King was a darling of the nation’s liberal establishment when he focused his attacks on racism exclusively on the southern edifice of Jim Crow.  But when King began to challenge poverty in the North, and to point to the persistence of institionalized racism outside of the South, he became a leper within those northern liberal circles.

Among King’s most courageous acts was his condemnation of the Vietnam War, famously delivered in a speech at Riverside Church in Harlem during 1967.  King called the U.S. government the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence.”  He argued that black soldiers were fighting for freedoms in Southeast Asia that they could not find in Southwest Georgia.  King was roundly condemned in the media and within the political establishment for these views.  While “I Have a Dream” features in many a school assembly, the Riverside Church speech enjoys no such prominence.

Activists for immigrant rights have argued that we build on the tradition of struggle developed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  While the movements of that era were focused on the legalized second-class citizenship allotted to African-Americans, the fight for immigrant justice challenges different though analogous patterns of inequality that limit the rights and opportunities of immigrants from across the globe.  The immigrant rights movement is also a workers rights movement, drawing strength from the economic centrality of immigrants to the U.S. economy.  Dr. King came to see the centrality of labor issues as his politics developed in response to the issues of his day.  King was killed in Memphis while supporting a strike of black sanitation workers.

Within interfaith organizing for social justice, King’s legacy is a powerful one.  As a leader within the faith community, King took courageous stances against injustice.  He argued that it was not enough to believe in a higher power, but that ordinary people had to act with determination to bring about the world of justice to which we aspire.  In his day, King built bridges between communities and attempted to develop a perspective for the struggle against racism that took stock of the profound economic inequality that continues to infect the political and social landscape of this country.

Cesar Chavez, a lion in the struggle for immigrant rights, had this to say about Dr. King:

“My friends, the time for action is upon us. The enemies of justice want you to think of Dr. King as only a civil rights leader, but he had a much broader agent. He was a tireless crusader for the rights of the poor, for an end to the war in Vietnam long before it was popular to take that stand, and for the rights of workers everywhere.”

In his final address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King’s words were prescient.  He argued that “we honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.  There are forty million poor people here.  And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?  And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth… We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace.  But one day we must come to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”

The movement for immigrant justice has much to learn from these words.  We are challenging the systematic legal inequality afflicting immigrant workers.  But we must also challenge the global economic inequality that produces unending streams of people desperate to find better lives in faraway lands.  We must educate our own society about the brutal political and economic realities that force millions to migrate, and fight for solutions that protect and defend the rights of all.  These are staggering tasks.  But our best contribution to extending the best of King’s legacy is to apply his insight, determination, and resilience to the struggles and challenges of our time.

We must also challenge the wanton abuse of Dr. King’s legacy to justify policies who almost certainly would have opposed.  Following Osama Bin Laden’s extra-judicial assassination, one activist for LGBT equality posted a deeply offensive and inflammatory post online, cheering Obama for carrying out this successful military operation.  It is not surprising that there are LGBT activists who have little appreciation for the struggle against U.S. imperialism.  What was shocking was the abuse of Dr. King’s name.  His famous quote that “the arc of history bends towards justice,” was invoked to lend the weight of history to a tawdry appeal to the basest revenge-oriented instincts in U.S. politics.

Martin Luther King was a tireless opponent of racism, war, povery, and violence.  We honor his legacy by continuing to struggle for justice on every front, and by engaging critically with his contested legacy.  One of Dr. King’s predecessors in the black freedom struggle, Frederick Douglass, argued famously that “without struggle, there is no progress.”  King’s was a life dedicated to struggle and tirelessly dedicated to the oppressed and exploited.  Defending his life’s work demands that we resist the appropriation of his legacy to defend the economic, military, and political status quo.


David Thurston was co-coordinator of outreach for the National Equality March in DC and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs.  He served as Anti-Racism Organizer and Educator at CASA de Maryland, and continues to serve on the board of the Washington Peace Center.  He is also a founding member of the Praxis Committee.  David can be reached at david.thurston78@gmail.com

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