The Legacy of MLK Today: Activism Across Generations

By Todd M. Michney

MLK pulling up cross 1960

The observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in Atlanta – the hometown and final resting place of the country’s best-known African American civil rights leader – offers both an opportunity to reflect and a call to revisit Dr. King’s life and work, amidst a recent upsurge in activism and polarized political debates that point up the persistence of racial inequality.  Considering the claims on his legacy from across the political spectrum, as well as our often selective memory regarding the more controversial stands he took during his lifetime – most importantly his opposition to the Vietnam War and his increasingly insistent calls for economic justice – contemporary commentators explore King’s misconstrued and potentially radical significance.  At Georgia Tech, noted journalist and thought leader Jeff Johnson, this year’s keynote speaker at the Institute Diversity lecture, reminded the audience that Dr. King often spoke uncomfortable truths, asserting that the Dream he articulated at the 1963 March on Washington surely would have evolved with the times.

One effect of our conflicting claims on Dr. King’s historical significance – and that of other activist icons, notably Rosa Parks, as well as of the civil rights movement more generally – is a lack of agreement on how the current mobilizations around mass incarceration and the use of excessive force by police, coalescing as #BlackLivesMatter, relate to the freedom struggles of an earlier era.  “This is not your granddaddy’s civil rights movement,” one local activist recently stated. “We’re not waiting for someone in a suit to come save us.”

While some observers and a forthcoming study seemingly reinforce this categorical distinction – in particular, that the innovative use of social media and the significant impact of LGBTQIA awareness and mobilization distinguish today’s activism from that of an earlier era – this assessment is in fact reminiscent of similar divisions along generational and class lines within African American communities as they fought for change during the 1960s.  Other contemporary young activists have embraced Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, using the hashtag #ReclaimMLK, and a current exhibit at the Atlanta University Center likewise emphasizes the importance of intergenerational collaboration and continuity in student activism.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stands outside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference offices in Atlanta, GA, in November 1967. The photograph was taken by renowned Leica Camera photographer, Benedict J. Fernandez. Leica Camera, Inc., is currently supporting Countdown To Eternity, a national photo exhibition providing an inspirational view of the famed civil rights leader through the photographs of Fernandez. (PRNewsFoto) Original Filename: LEICA_CAMERA___DR._MARTIN_LUTHER_KING_JR._PRN4.jpg
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stands outside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference offices in Atlanta, GA, in November 1967. Photo Source: Benedict J. Fernandez

In her award-winning history of Atlanta’s civil rights movement, Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin recounts the fractious struggle to desegregate the “City Too Busy to Hate,” and reminds us of Dr. King’s place at the forefront of several youth-led protests of the time.  The city’s pre-1960s tradition of a biracial coalition – black and white business leaders who negotiated compromises behind closed doors, including the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. – discouraged high-profile tactics like the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, and sit-ins pioneered by African American student protesters beginning in 1960.  And while King, Jr. established his organizational headquarters and maintained a residence in Atlanta, he was actually less prominent in his hometown than on the national stage, partially due to disapproval from the city’s biracial leadership.  King was arrested for the first time in the 1960-61 student-led sit-ins to integrate Rich’s Department store, marking his shift to a more confrontational form of nonviolent protest in choosing “jail over bail.”  In 1963, he admonished Atlanta for falling behind other southern cities including Greensboro, Charlotte, and Nashville in desegregating schools and businesses.  In 1966, Dr. King raised awareness of poor housing conditions in Atlanta through his endorsement of a controversial campaign by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to organize residents in Vine City, and also described a riot in the Summerhill neighborhood later that year as the “desperate language of the unheard.” [1]

While Dr. King’s most vocal challenges to the status quo came in the 1965 Selma voting rights march and his 1968 declaration of a “Poor People’s Campaign,” some of his earliest speeches also reveal striking resonances for the troubles of our own time, and our own promises for tomorrow.  In “A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations,” an April 1957 address held at a Freedom Rally sponsored by the Citizens Committee of Greater St. Louis, MLK, Jr. attempted to chart a course between the “extreme optimism” equivalent to today’s now-discredited declarations of a “post-racial” America following President Barack Obama’s election, and the “extreme pessimism” that we can also find in the conservative backlash against present-day protest movements like #BlackLivesMatter.  His description of an “uneasy peace” premised on black subordination, and his conclusion that “peace is not merely the absence of tension, but it is the presence of justice,” is a clear parallel to the “No Justice, No Peace” slogan popularized by activists from the 1990s to the present day.  In his 1957 speech, King looked unflinchingly back to a history of oppression and exploitation dating to 1619, despite several favorable Supreme Court rulings and the just-concluded Montgomery boycott; his mention of persistent disparities in black-white earnings also marks a clear parallel to the current racial wealth gap.  Even his mention of “the Negro’s . . . determination to struggle, suffer, sacrifice, and even die if necessary until the walls of segregation crumble” should not be read in the context of his own martyrdom, but rather in the broader historical sweep of action against oppression, his words referencing the militant “New Negro” turn of African American protest in the World War I era, perhaps best embodied by Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die,” written in response to the 1919 race riots targeting black communities.

Considering the wealth of local archival holdings documenting Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work, we may gain further nuanced insights about his life philosophy, his activism, and the resonance of both in our history, present, and future.  In the meantime, the passionate mobilization of a new generation continues to challenge the status quo here in Atlanta and beyond.  On this thirty-year anniversary of the MLK Holiday, we would do well not only to revisit his legacy but to embody how his words mirror and inspire the work we do today, as we strive toward true racial equality.

 

[1] Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 143-44, 153, 159, 230, 269, 279, 307.  See also Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 180-204.

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