Commentary

What Should Martin Luther King’s Legacy Mean Today?

By Philip Christensen

Do you remember where you were on April 4th, 1968, when you heard the news that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee? I certainly do! That night I was staying with new friends in a Black section of Augusta, Georgia, as part of an interracial group of students, all members of the Bahá’í Faith, who had traveled to Georgia from Massachusetts over their Easter break to work on community development. As unrest roiled the streets below our apartment and some in the crowd chanted “kill whitey,” the contrast between Dr. King’s vision of a better America and the injustice against which he fought until his dying day seemed particularly stark.


Dr. King had already produced a seismic impact on race relations In the United State by combining civil resistance (“refusing to cooperate with an evil system”) with nonviolence (“a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.”) Both “morally and practically” committed to this approach, he believed that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.) Still in his 20’s, newly ordained as a Baptist minister, he rose to national attention by harnessing the power of this combination in leading the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott.


Over his lifetime, so tragically shortened by the assassin’s bullet, his commitment to this approach only strengthened. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that,” he wrote. “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil.”


Of course the cancer of injustice continues to afflict our society. In fact, some problems have only become worse since 1968. At the beginning of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, for example, Dr. King said: “…America has given its colored people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” Yet income inequality in this country has become even more extreme, with the highest earners taking an even larger piece of the economic pie since 1968 and the lowest earners taking less (many even starving). Black households still report median income just over 60% of median white households.


Even where we have made progress, more remains to be done. In some cases, such as voting rights, hard-won improvements are now under attack. Dr. King saw equal voting rights as key to redressing other racial wrongs. Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1957, he said “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind — it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact — I can only submit to the edict of others.”


So next Monday, on Martin Luther King Day, the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation has organized its annual march and program around the theme “Save Our Democracy – Vote.” Marchers will gather from 11 am at the Tinner Hill Civil Rights Monument (corner of South Washington St. and Tinner Hill Rd.) After an introductory program featuring Senator Mark Warner, they will proceed to the grounds of Falls Church Episcopal for final remarks by Congressman Don Beyer.


As we observe his holiday at the beginning of another year of huge challenges, from pandemic to politics, let us remember one other important fact about Dr. King’s legacy. Above all, his clear vision in the face of prejudice, injustice, and obstruction remained one of hope.


In his “I Have a Dream speech, after speaking about the reality of African-Americans “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” he returned to that vision:


“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream that… one day right there in Alabama, little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”


On January 17th this year, may each of us find our own way to help fulfill this promise from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Philip Christensen chairs the Social Justice Committee of Falls Church and Vicinity, an initiative of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation.