The Legacy of a King

“A social movement that only moves people is a revolt. A social movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” -MLK, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964, p. 117


Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy is a touchstone of modern United States history. American children learn the story of MLK as one of triumph, of arrival at an American promise land of finally-delivered equality to long-suffering communities. That’s the abridged version, anyway. In reality, King’s infamous Dream of desegregation, of racial equality measured by economic equality, is pitifully underrealized in the U.S. today. As one example, the San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most diverse, liberal cities on the planet, and it is also segregated to a disturbing degree. (See the Tenderloin, Hunter’s Point, Japantown as compared to Nob Hill, Twin Peaks, Pacific Heights for details. Same goes for Oakland compared to Berkeley; East Palo Alto to Palo Alto.)

Even before his assassination, Dr. King enumerated the challenges of fighting for lasting equality in a scathing indictment of the American mainstream:

“The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. Overwhelmingly America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions. It has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming some change. But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are to be taken. Laws are passed in a crisis mood…but no substantial fervor survives the formal signing of legislation. The recording of the law itself is treated as the reality of the reform.” -MLK, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, 1968, p. 4-5

Unsurprisingly, King’s more complex philosophies are rarely quoted or brought up in The Civil Rights Story. It’s clearly in part because he’s truly radical in his articulation of justice. I also think it’s because his pronouns–such as “God,” “Negros,” and “Man”–can trigger intense discomfort in 21st century politics.

Most notably, King’s spiritual commitment and the Christian doctrine that founded his political activism seem misplaced in today’s ideological spectrum. Though they use similar vocabulary, the lunacy of today’s religious political activists– i.e. Michelle Bachman, Paul Ryan, and Todd Akin–are nowhere close to King’s expressions of compassion and equality.

“There are three dimensions of any complete life…: length, breadth, and height. The length of life… is not its duration or its longevity, but it is the push of a life forward to achieve its personal ends and ambitions. It is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. The height of life is the upward reach for God. These are the three dimensions of life, and without the three being correlated, working harmoniously together, life is incomplete.” MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 36-37

For present-day progressives, I wonder if King’s reliance on ‘God’ to define a fulfilling human life makes his broader point harder to swallow? Has the pervasiveness of his Christian philosophy in his writings contributed to a highly abridged version of his legacy? Does it freeze his message in time, deeming it a distant relic, isolated from today’s brand of highly polarized politics?

“[M]an is a being of spirit. That is what the psalmist means when he says, ‘Thou hast crowned him with glory and honor.’ Man has rational capacity; man has a mind; man can reason. This distinguishes him from the lower animals. And so, somehow, man is in nature, and yet he is above nature; he is in time, and yet he is above time; he is in space, and yet he is above space. This means he can do things that lower animals could never do. He can think a poem and write it; he can think a symphony and compose it; he can think up a great civilization and create it.” -MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 17

As you can see, categorizing King based on today’s political standards gets complicated pretty quickly. In his written works, King reveals ideological loyalties that seem contradictory today: he’s both rational and spiritual, a modern philosopher and a devout practitioner. Within one argument, for example, King calls out the failures of America and the ‘West’ in manifesting its ideals by invoking a disembodied, God-like voice. Then, later on the page, he alludes to American Exceptionalism as a sound basis for pursuing justice:

“Oh, I can hear a voice crying out today, saying to Western civilization, ‘You strayed away to the far country of colonialism and imperialism. You have trampled over one billion six hundred million of your…brothers in Africa and Asia’…[and] It seems I can hear a voice saying to America: “You started out right. You wrote in your Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…’ But, America, you have strayed away from that sublime principle. You left the house of your great heritage and strayed away into a far country of segregation and discrimination. You have trampled over…your brothers. You have deprived them of the basic goods of life. You have taken from them their self-respect and their sense of dignity. You have treated them as if they were things rather than persons. Because of this, a famine has broken out in your land. In the midst of all your material wealth, you are spiritually and morally poverty-stricken, unable to speak to the conscience of this world. America, in this famine situation, if you will come to yourself and rise up and decide to come back home, I will take you in, for you are made for something high and something noble and something good.’ ”
-MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 29-30

I love reading King’s written works because 1) he’s a brilliant writer, and 2) they beautifully embody the natural contradictions of the human experience. His ideas and words soar above linear history and the limits of human nature, yet his vocabulary is surprisingly anachronistic, shaped by and for his unique moment in time.

His teachings, his actions, and the timeliness of his powerful vision established MLK as a leader of his era. But his overarching message rings true in any time: challenge what you see, challenge what you know, and challenge injustice with radical compassion until freedom and equality are both the letter and spirit of the law. His ability to express the richness of a pluralist existence resonates with a growing realization about our global fate:

“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people…cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.” -MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 48-49

With that last sentence, it’s clear to me King’s legacy isn’t just a frozen moment, and it isn’t just a speech at the Lincoln Memorial or a ‘triumphant’ struggle for Civil Rights. His words indeed sparked a revolution, because he didn’t just move people, he moved them (and their kids) to an unprecedented breadth of social activism that we’re seeing flourish in our networks.

“It is true that these elements [the marching, the confrontations, the protests] have meaning, but to ignore the concrete and specific gains in dismantling the structure of segregation is like noticing the beauty of the rain, but failing to see that it has enriched the soil.” MLK, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964, p. 116-117

With the advent of the Internet, we’ve rediscovered our collective potential to propel social change. In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken estimates that well over one million nonprofits, NGOs, social enterprises, and grassroots community groups founded in the last twenty years constitute “the largest social movement in human history.” These organizations are part of King’s legacy, part of the kind of hope, resilience, creativity, and community building (and celebrity fundraising) that he led through Selma and Birmingham.

We’re in a time when we desperately need to regenerate ailing systems, to solve pressing global problems. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his divinely human beauty, the Hercules of progressive social change. But beyond leading his contemporaries, Dr. King also enriched the soil of political activism for the growth of future generations. Based on Hawken’s research, I think King’s nonviolent leadership and radical compassion did indeed start a revolution. I also think this is just the beginning, just the initial fruits of his reign.

I can’t wait to see them multiply.