Today, January 15th, would have marked Dr. Martin Luther King’s 84th birthday. I find myself wondering how things might be different if he were still with us today. But while his heart may have stopped beating in 1968, his legacy continues to live with us today. His dream is far from being realized, and it’s up to all of us to ensure that one day, we will reach the Beloved Community he spoke so passionately about.
As the nation moves into a week filled with activities, ceremonies and events organized in his honor, let’s remind ourselves of what Dr. King really stood for. If we are going to continue to use his name and image as a moral compass for this nation, we owe it to him to never forget what his real legacy is.
While it is great that many communities will come together over this weekend to celebrate, to participate in neighborhood clean up projects and other activities as part of the “Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service,” I can’t help but think what he would have thought of people cleaning up trash from the streets in his memory as homeless people sleep on those same sidewalks. What would he have thought of us celebrating the work he did in the 60s as young people are being murdered in the streets today? What would he have said about big banks and corporations spending lavishly to build him statues while kicking people out of their homes, or of McDonalds celebrating Black History while poisoning the community?
Not all of those things are “bad” things. People should be beautifying our neighborhoods, corporations should be honoring the legacy of great leaders of the past. But if that’s all we do when we think of King, we are doing him, and the nation a disservice.
Today, tomorrow, and every day from this point on, let us remind ourselves what King really stood for, and let’s commit ourselves to being a part of his living legacy.
King was not simply a “nice” person who wanted all people to get along. He was a fierce organizer who was not afraid of confrontation. He was not only a man who had some wonderful dream one night, but a man who had the courage and the audacity to take to the streets and demand justice. He was a man who called his government the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world” and wanted to see a movement that was “nonviolent, but militant, and as dramatic, as dislocative, as disruptive, as attention-getting as the riots.”
If we are to ever get anywhere close to seeing his dream come to reality, we must never water down his message. We must always have the courage to stand up and speak out against all forms of injustice, no matter where it is coming from. That is how we will honor his legacy. And that is how we should celebrate his birthday.
We need to shift how his Holiday is framed and celebrated. It is not enough to have a “day of service.” No, we need to demand a “day of justice.” And in our struggle for justice, let us also keep in mind that King reminded all of us that Agape, unconditional love for humanity, is the most powerful weapon at our disposal. As radical and as militant as his politics and tactics were at times, it was always grounded in the power of love.
I want to leave folks with this, a video of Dr. King’s favorite singer, Mahalia Jackson, singing Precious Lord, Take My Hand. After he was shot in Memphis, his last words were to musician Ben Branch, who was at King’s side. He said, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”