FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. The Lorraine Motel, where King was shot and killed, is now the National Civil Rights Museum. What has been built in an attempt to obscure King’s activism and legacy is a far more complicated matter.
For a New Yorker cover, artist Mark Ulriksen commemorated what would have been King’s 89th birthday last January. His hands clasped in prayer, the civil rights icon was portrayed kneeling on the turf between football players Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett. King’s arms were linked with both men.
Some conservatives found King’s inclusion controversial and accused the media of making King’s holiday “about politics.”
King’s day “shouldn’t be about whether or not Dr. King would support the national anthem protests,” wrote Jeremy Hunt in an online Fox News opinion column. “Frankly, no one will ever know. Perhaps, we should reflect on what we do know about Dr. King: his teachings on love, his commitment to ministering the Gospel, his dream of equality for all people.”
Anyone who reflects on King’s teachings, ministry, and dream of equality knows that he would have taken a knee to protest police violence and racial inequality. Just as he would be marching in Sacramento to protest the police killing of Stephon Clark, just as he would have been among the throngs of gun control proponents at last month’s March for Our Lives.
To believe otherwise is partisan revisionism.
That’s how it’s been in the decades since King’s death. When conservatives speak of King, it’s an attempt to defang his radicalism — and, yes, believing African-Americans deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and equity remains as radical an idea today as it was a half-century ago. Of course, King believed in civil rights for all — but he fought for black people because entrenched laws and attitudes rendered them second-class citizens. When King’s interrupted fight is reduced to a watercolor greeting card, it’s like those who respond to a “black lives matter” chant with “all lives matter.” They don’t care about all lives as much as diverting even fleeting attention as to how black people are devalued and endangered in America.
It’s a veiled and disingenuous way of diminishing King, just like the 2006 essay from the conservative Heritage Foundation that claimed King’s mission was to “not to change laws, but change people.”
As usual, this parsing of King cynically ignores facts. From the year-long Montgomery bus boycott, which started in December 1955, to the Voting Rights Act a decade later, King always agitated for discriminatory laws to be toppled. “It may be true that a law cannot make a man love me,” King once said, “but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
Here in Boston, we have a special connection to King and preserving his authentic legacy. He called this city home during his years at Boston University, where he received his PhD in systematic theology. He lived at 397 Massachusetts Ave., near what is now the Massachusetts Avenue T station. King met Coretta Scott, then a student at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, and, on an early date, they attended a concert by the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein at Symphony Hall. He was also an occasional guest preacher at Roxbury’s Twelfth Baptist Church, near the boulevard that now bears King’s name.
King was only months out of BU when he came to national prominence, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., city bus. He would return to Boston several times, most notably in 1965 to lead a march against school segregation, from Roxbury to Boston Common.
To honor both Kings, MLK Boston, a nonprofit, has raised $2 million of its $5 million budget for a memorial. It has already received 126 applications worldwide from teams interested in creating it, and next month will narrow the entries to five contenders. A finalist will be chosen in November.
Such a memorial is long overdue in this city; still, the greatest monument to King is how his devotion to social justice has inspired generations of activists, especially those who have found their voices in this tumultuous political era. From Black Lives Matter to the Never Again movements, King’s unfailing persistence against systems that sustain white supremacy, economic inequity, and laws that oppress is present in every protest and march. He is the spiritual father of modern American protest.
Also reminiscent of King’s era is how quickly the enemies of progress move to denounce each movement’s leaders — whether it’s tagging as terrorists the women who cofounded Black Lives Matter, or calling the Parkland students “crisis actors” and worse.
Yet as living embodiments of King’s activism, they remain undeterred. “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” King once said, and it is one of his most quoted lines. As King certainly knew, and all who follow his path soon discover, that long moral arc will bend only if those committed to the civil rights icon’s unfinished work are willing to pry it from the hands of those who misuse King’s legacy to justify discriminatory laws which he devoted and, ultimately, gave his life to help abolish.