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Protesters try to reclaim King’s legacy in another era

Marlie Mahogany (center) and the Coalition Against Police Violence protested against racism in Atlanta on Friday.Kevin Liles/New York Times

NEW YORK — On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, protesters mobilized by the shooting deaths of young blacks and outraged about racial inequality are evoking his work, denouncing what they say is an attempt to sanitize his message, and using the hashtag #ReclaimMLK hoping to rekindle a new movement for social change.

The website Ferguson Action, for instance, which has been a focal point for information on protests and activism in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., says King’s “radical, principled, and uncompromising” vision should be a model for protest for our time.


The iconic images of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. come from an era when he was confronting legalized discrimination, and communication tools included mimeographed fliers and the holy grail of a network television report. Protesters today cite myriad ills embedded in the economy and culture and spread their messages instantly through websites, Twitter hashtags, and text messages.

And at a time of widespread social unrest over race and inequality, the King holiday on Monday is highlighting both the power of King’s vision, brought to the public again in the film “Selma,” and the enormous difficulties of forging a movement along similar lines.

Nonetheless, today’s protesters are embracing King’s spirit and the tactics of his era with a sense of commitment that has not existed, perhaps, for decades.

“We’re in the business of disrupting white supremacy,” said Wazi Davis, 23, a student at San Francisco State University, who has helped organize protests in the Bay Area. “We look toward historical tactics. The Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-ins — those tactics were all about disruption.”

What is far less clear is whether today’s protesters have the ability, or even the intention, to build an organized movement capable of creating social change.


David J. Garrow, a historian and the author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” said the impromptu protests that had erupted in recent months were not comparable to the strategies used by civil rights groups of the 1960s, which had clear goals such as winning the right to vote or the right to eat at a segregated lunch counter.

“You could call it rebellious, or you could call it irrational,” Garrow said of the new wave of protests. “There has not been a rational analysis in how does A and B advance your policy change X and Y?”

Garrow compared the protesters to those of Occupy Wall Street.

“Occupy had a staying power of, what, six months?” Garrow said. “Three years later, is there any remaining footprint from Occupy? Not that I’m aware of.”

After the deaths of Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and others, protests have included angry marches and mass “die-ins” in streets and public buildings. They have grown to include actions like “Black Brunch,” in which protesters have confronted white diners in upscale restaurants.

On Thursday, several dozen people shut down a major highway carrying suburbanites into Boston by attaching themselves to 1,200-pound drums filled with concrete and standing in the middle of Interstate 93.

Many, even those who are sympathetic, say today’s protesters run the risk of alienating people rather than persuading them through their tactics. But the protesters say civil disobedience and disruption were also at the heart of King’s vision.


“We really feel that King’s legacy has been clouded by efforts to soften and sanitize that legacy,” said Mervyn Marcano, a Ferguson Action spokesman.

It is not only the new wave of protesters that is linking last year’s police shootings to this year’s holiday. At many of the official commemorations — breakfasts and worship services around the country — speakers are expected to talk about Ferguson. And the issue has made its way into much of the conversation about the holiday.

For example, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day statement from Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, declared, “Continuing tensions and violence in our communities remind us that although significant progress has been made in erasing the stain of racism and the cycle of related violence, we still have much work to do.”

Unlike the clear goals of the civil rights era, the protesters today mostly cite broader goals, such as ending discrimination, combating inequality, and ending the killing of young blacks by the police. Others say they want to confront racism, curb gentrification, and reduce the incarceration of people of color.

Many see themselves as building a new movement that goes well beyond what some called the “respectability politics” of civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, powerful figures such as Oprah Winfrey, and politicians such as President Obama.

“We don’t need people shifting the blame to poor black and brown communities for these tragedies,” said Daniel Camacho, 24, a divinity student from Long Island, who has participated in some of the protests in New York. “I’ve heard enough people complain about sagging pants, gangster music, fatherlessness, black-on-black crime. Who’s focusing on holding the American state, the police, fully accountable?”


Some older blacks are sympathetic but skeptical.

In an interview with People magazine, Winfrey said that while it was “wonderful” to see protests across the country, “What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.’ ”