The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy annually inspires acts of service, education and unity across the nation when we are encouraged to take a, “day on, not a day off,” in his honor.
The positivity that now surrounds King and his life’s work is a stark difference to the disapproval rating of almost 75 percent he had at the time of his assassination. Many Black Americans thought he was too pacifistic, while White Americans sought his silence. Now, as the only non-president with a federally recognized birthday, he is a widespread symbol of peace and progress.
It is only when his symbolism hinders the continued progress his legacy should inspire that this becomes an issue. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is too often celebrated exclusively with inspirational soundbites and quotations. The demonstration of support without effort or commitment is not advancement, it is slacktivism.
King championed nonviolence but it is a disservice to interpret that as the promotion of inaction. The simplification of his philosophy into something representative of lawfulness or harmony is an injustice to aspects of King’s identity equally as important as his blackness; he was a strategist and a radical who valued truth-speaking and justice, not peacekeeping and compromise.
Often presented as someone who led with words and patience, King was in fact consistently vocal about how we must not wait for change. Instead, we need to go out and demand it.
In his 1959 essay entitled “The Social Organization of Nonviolence,” King asserted that, “the Negro people can organize socially to…drive their enemies back without resort to futile and harmful violence.”
In King’s eyes, civil rights would be won via, “creative forms,” including mass marches, boycotts, strikes and protests. This nonviolent direct action was purposefully designed to create tension and force negotiation. To this day, we see his chosen methods utilized by movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, #TransRights, Time’s Up and March for Our Lives.
Harnessing the power of King’s legacy is important because his status as a historical icon is undeniable. But we must also harness the power of his means and his message.
As stated in his speech at the March on Washington, “1963 is not an end but a beginning.” Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not a standalone event but an opportunity to bring the modes of change King envisioned into your community year-round. Share a quote on social media but then become inspired enough to bring people together, enact change and be able to answer what Martin Luther King Jr. once said was life’s, “most persistent and urgent question,” – what are you doing for others?