Martin Luther King, Jr.: How would American life be different without him?
Institutional racism in the United States has declined greatly thanks to the work of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet 'we have not reached the promised land MLK talked about,' says one scholar, nor has the economic equality King sought for all races been achieved.
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Asked what they feel Americans should consider on this federal holiday of commemoration, many say activities should go beyond celebration to self-reflection and individual action.Skip to next paragraph
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“People should draw from the legacy of King the drive to live out their own American dream,” says Brian Bellamy, who teaches race, religion, and identity at the University of New Haven. “Do something that no one in your family has ever done before. Go to college, start a business. His vision was that all Americans should be able to achieve the dream. Do what you can as an individual to make that happen.”
Several mention this year’s commemoration should include a new push to audiotape, videotape, and chronicle the stories of King and the Civil Rights era while those that lived through it are still alive.
“History is very slippery and easily lost and forgotten, so it is the archival function which needs to be accelerated, not just the focus on King’s great achievements,” says Northeastern University law professor, Margaret Burnham, founder of The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ).
Her school sponsored a talk Friday by Isabel Wilkerson, former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration.” Based on scores of interviews she did across the country, Wilkerson spoke on where and how African Americans struggled to build new lives outside of the South. She also touched on how northern cities came to incorporate music and culture that might not have existed if not for King.
“She interviewed hundreds of people whose stories have never been told,” says Burnham, “and that is a vital part of what others must focus on as well before it’s too late.”
Asked what is less known or underappreciated about King, some say it was his ability to execute nuts-and-bolts organizing with diverse organizations that came together during the civil rights era.
“There is appreciation of his religious thought and his political philosophy of non-violence, but often overlooked is his management skills,” says Dennis Simon, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
Professor Simon says King’s first post of importance was a diverse contingent of groups that included ministers, labor leaders, and a woman’s council, called the Montgomery Improvement Association.
“This is where he went into the trenches and learned how to deal with people, how to deliberate and come to decisions, how to develop political strategy, and how to frame it in a viable narrative for the media,” says Simon. “We are all the beneficiaries of what King learned in this crucible.”