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Claiming and reclaiming Martin Luther King

Village Leadership Academy students leading the march on Martin Luther King's birthday last week in Chicago. (Twitter/Sarah Jane Rhee)

Village Leadership Academy students leading the march on Martin Luther King’s birthday last week in Chicago. (Twitter/Sarah Jane Rhee)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left an extensive record of written letters, speeches and correspondences, along with hours upon hours of filmed interviews and public appearances. Much of it has been digitized, and can be found online at the King Center, an archive somewhat ironically sponsored by JP Morgan Chase. The King Papers project at Stanford University, too, houses a number of documents. Like any historical record, at those sites and others virtual and material, King’s legacy remains open to interpretation, an act perhaps best done by those who’ve spent time studying his life and work rather than bloggers looking for a provocative headline.

King’s legacy is perhaps the most contested in the history of American social movements. As historian Tom Sugrue points out at Jacobin, even the far right has twisted his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, an address to the crowd at 1963’s March on Washington, into a narrative of meritocratic individualism used to argue against provisions like welfare and affirmative action.

In the lead-up to today’s holiday, and the recent release of Ava Duvernay’s film “Selma,” many across the political spectrum have tried again to claim King: as a conservative, radical anti-capitalist, moderate, chauvinist, tax evader and religious fundamentalist, using evidence culled from FBI files, personal letters and stretched readings of his public statements. Google King today with just about any adjective, and chances are you’ll find something. Without being either scholars or revisionists, there are a few things it can safely said that King was: militantly nonviolent, a Christian, a man of action, and a firm believer that justice did not end at the voting booth, but extended also to our economic system, communities and basic human dignity.

In a 1965 address entitled “A Christian Movement in a Revolutionary Age,” he called the civil rights movement a “revolution in the very best biblical sense of the word,” saying that it was “God making all thing new.” Referencing famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, he wrote “this is a struggle to save black men’s bodies and white men’s souls.” He called the riots that followed in Watts in 1965 “a cry for jobs from the unemployed and a call for justice for under-employed who are in no way touched by the present federal minimum wage law,” saying they were “more class riots than race riots.” He called on people to sit in not at lunch counters, “but at employment offices.”

There are many Kings, and that represented in the speech above is just one. As Philadelphia-based Rev. Rick Hampson argues, the young leaders of today’s own civil rights movement — that which has emerged from the killings of unarmed black teenagers like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown — “don’t see [King] as a model to be copied or his movement as a template.” Instead, those driving groups like the Black Youth Project, Hands Up United, Justice League NYC, and the Dream Defenders “take some things from their illustrious predecessor and leave others.” Celebrating Dr. King today, maybe the rest of us can take their lead: find inspiration in his legacy where it strikes us, and, rather than caviling over which King we want to see most, literally following them by joining or otherwise supporting the thousands who’ll be in the streets today to #ReclaimMLK.