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As politicians and corporations prepare curated quotes and graphics to share on January 16th, some are concerned the legacy of King has become white-washed and moderated over time.

“First, I must confess that over the last few years, I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” King wrote from his cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sixty years have passed since King penned his now famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.

In the 1960s, only one-third of Americans approved of the words and actions of Dr. King. Fewer still approved of the methods of protest he and other Civil Rights leaders undertook. According to a 1961 Gallup poll, only 27% of Americans believed protests like sit-ins were helpful to furthering integration.

By 1964, that number dropped to just 17%.

King’s actions and rhetoric were largely viewed, not as moderate, but as radical.

In 1983, some labeled King a “communist”, a “marxist” and ‘against American values’.

For some Republicans, King was so radical they refused to vote for a national holiday celebrating his legacy in 1983. Fifteen years after a white supremacist’s bullet stole King’s life, another white supremacist in the Senate filibustered to block a holiday in his honor.

Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina fought against a day celebrating King. Helms echoed racist conspiracies about King, calling him a “communist” and a “marxist”. Helms stated from the Senate floor that King’s believes were “not compatible with the concepts of this country”.

Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina started a filibuster against a bill that would make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday in 1983.  

While King was not a communist, many attempted to levy those charges against him at the height of the red panic in order to diminish his approval.

For some in power, King’s fight for economic, social and racial justice clashed with moderate and conservative power structures of the time and, arguably, still would today.

King’s fight for social and economic justice would likely be deemed “radical” today.

A 2020 poll of voters found that nearly 80% of Republicans and conservative Independents disapproved of a universal guaranteed income.

In 2022, efforts to pass an extended child tax credit that would provide guaranteed monthly payments to families failed. Republicans and conservative Democrats shot down the idea of providing payments to individuals without a work requirement.

In fact, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many moderate and conservative Governors rejected funding for added unemployment benefits. Several Republican governors cited a need to urge Americans back into the workforce as reasoning for rejecting the funds. Moderates and conservatives cited laziness brought on by government payments. At the same time, workers reported a need for higher, livable wages and improved working conditions.

These views and actions run in direct contradiction to King’s beliefs on poverty.

Through the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, King advocated for both a guaranteed basic income and for guaranteed jobs for all Americans.

“The problem indicates that our emphasis must be two-fold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King challenged the notion of traditional capitalism. The pastor often called the belief that some individuals are destined to remain living in poverty “archaic”.

“The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity,” King wrote.

“We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Commitment to MLK’s legacy requires more than tepid or moderate efforts in the ongoing push for equality.

Most, if not all elected officials across the political spectrum will likely cite a famous King quote on Monday. They will likely praise his non-violence, his strive for unity and his general love for humanity.

Those attributes are all correct to a point. Yet to focus on them alone and ignore King’s relentless fight for justice does a disservice to his legacy, and to the nation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a disruptive visionary who refused to placate with niceties and political temperance. Instead, he worked to upend systems, eliminate inequities and build a reimagined nation truly created to serve all its citizens.

King was more just than the man who urged us to judge others “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

He was the man who declared that “God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.”

He was the man who went to jail 29 times. He’s the man chastised by national politicians – whose home was bombed because he dared to fight for better.

And in his wisdom, King decried the White moderate’s tepid acceptance of the relentless pursuit of justice.

The same systemic white supremacy that King fought against, and that ultimately claimed his life, remains pervasive in today’s America. Honoring his legacy demands more than a lukewarm quote or service project. Upholding the character and promise of Dr. King requires committing to seeing his vision of justice and equality realized.

“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” King wrote from his Birmingham jail cell.

“Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nate Morris moved to the Tulsa area in 2012 and has committed himself to helping build a more equitable and just future for everyone who calls the city home. As a teacher, advocate, community organizer...

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