Ithaca; New York — On Monday, many people will repost the “I Have a Dream” speech and posters with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and peace signs. However, that is not all King was and that is not all he should be remembered by.
Historical revisionism is what we are seeing happening around the country, where history is being distorted to protect the comfort of particular groups and uphold institutions. These systems are the exact ones King called people to resist.
In 1967, polls show that King was one of the most hated men in America. He was arrested 29 times before his assassination in 1968. The pacified portrait of King we see today does not do him justice. He loved his people fiercely and loved God just as passionately. The change King advocated for was extremely radical in the 1950’s America torn by de jure segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 'I Have a Dream' speech during the Civil Rights March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963 in Washington, D.C. via Getty Images.
King was fascinated by Gandhi’s philosophy and was inspired by mentors like Benjamin Mays, Vernon Johns and Howard Thurman. The 1,000+ books he read shows the passion King had for social justice and reconciliation. Reclaiming his legacy allows us to draw inspiration, courage, and vocabulary to address the division our world is still facing.
Revisionist history is what centers the non-violent component and neglects the direct action that he so strongly stood for and lived out. He fought against capitalism, war and the rights to citizenship. All noble stances but completely radical positions to hold at the time.
From the Poor People’s Campaign and strikes supporting sanitation workers to openly condemning the Vietnam War in his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam,” King did not simply call for peace or for people to grow silent and desensitized to violence happening. He called for action, more specifically, “non-violent direct action.” His actions resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act making him one of the prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
Yet, it’s important to remember that King is just as human as you and I. Growing up in a middle class community down in Atlanta, navigating public schools before landing at the esteemed HBCU Morehouse College to study sociology. He later earned a degree from Crozer Theological Seminary and a doctorate at Boston University in systematic theology. His desire to learn more about history and justice, his integrity and commitment to fighting for the right thing even when society had deemed it wrong, the way he spread awareness and his daily choice to get back up when knocked down is what created the impact our country will never forget.
Heroizing King and acting as if he is capable of making no mistakes is unrealistic, it places him on a pedestal creating an unrealistic distance from the work he did and the work we can do. It dismisses us from responsibility and leaves the hard work for the “heroes.” It forms the illusion that we are not capable of making a difference like him. And that couldn't be farther from the truth.
When we individually boycott corporations because of their corrupt practices, join nonprofit organizations or get engaged politically, attend protests or organize strikes, we are working in that same power of King. His method of nonviolent resistance was in no way endorsing inaction. His teachings of peace were not equivalent to silence, he marched for the true peace that could only come from addressing the harms of racism, militarism and capitalism.
Disrupt the status quo and speak up in whatever capacity you are able. King did not only speak up in crowds of thousands, he spoke up at his church and schools. What circles do you find yourself in and how could you speak up? This MLK day, I challenge you to refrain from idolizing and heroizing him, leave behind these incomplete narratives and truly learn from his incredible leadership. May this day be more than a day off from school or work, and more of a reminder to learn, love and resist like King.
Cherie Animashaun is an author and activist from the Chicagoland area. She is a freshman at Cornell University studying Public Policy. You can follow her on Instagram @her.risingg.
Edited by NaTyshca Pickett