The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the third Monday in January, became an annual observance in 1986, three years after it was approved as a federal holiday. One of the holiday’s annual gifts is the opportunity it allows for reflection on Dr. King’s life and legacy, his continued relevance to our own times, and the guidance he still offers to help us navigate the ever-changing landscape of our world.
Dr. King spent most of his adult life speaking boldly, demanding in a nonviolent fashion the need for societal change domestically and worldwide. In his last Sunday sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on March 31, 1968, he preached, “It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of White Americans, spoken and unspoken; acknowledged and denied; subtle and sometimes not so subtle.
“The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector, to work to get rid of racism,” said King, whose pulpit appearance came a couple of weeks before his death in Memphis.
Now, several decades later, the killings of Ahmaud Albury, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans became the center point of the 2020 racial justice protests in the midst of a global pandemic that has now gone on for over two years. The weeks of racial reckoning have seemed to bring this country no closer to Dr. King’s ultimate vision than when he first presented it over 50 years ago.
The MSR asked several individuals of various walks of life to help us reflect on this question:
Do his words, life and legacy have any relevance to our current times, especially when we are facing widespread social unrest in the midst of a still-raging pandemic?
Minnesota Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan:
“The work that Dr. King calls us to do is still ahead of us. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the deep racial and economic disparities that many of our Black, Native and neighbors of color face, but it did not create these disparities. They’re the same disparities and inequalities Dr. King was speaking about more than a half-century ago.”
Tru Pettigrew, Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx chief diversity and inclusion officer:
“I believe Dr. King understood that change itself is inevitable but the change that we seek is not. Whether it has been social, political, environmental, societal or otherwise… Those changes, however, will not simply roll in on the wheels of inevitability. We need to all be intentional about influencing the change that we seek.”
American University Law Professor Angi Porter:
“In this age of disinformation and limited attention span, we really need to focus on and study the lives, thinking, and strategies of people like Dr. King, who contributed to various movements that cared about these very old but very enduring issues that we are still fighting today. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we should learn from them and take lessons from what they experienced.”
Meka Morris, Minnesota Twins executive vice president, and chief revenue officer:
“Dr. King stood firm on nonviolent protests. The global pandemic has given us all the opportunity to slow down, be still, and really think about our personal fulfillment, balance, and the communities we serve. This stillness, juxtaposed with the widespread social unrest, has brought forth a culture of activism in new and exciting ways and has inspired our youth to take action and recognize the impact each one of us can make. This speaks to the very spirit of what Dr. King was all about.”
Brandi A. Hodge, HR professional, Daytona Beach, Fla.:
“With the pandemic and social unrest, some Americans are questioning if the efforts of Dr. King have been forgotten or simply in vain. With the outcry for justice, Dr. King’s spirit was in full effect during 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd. America had time to reflect and witness through social media the injustice of a person of color.”
Minnesota Lynx forward Natalie Achonwa:
“MLK’s activism and impact continue to inspire and guide the civil rights movements of today. His legacy didn’t stop. One of my favorite quotes that inspires and motivates me in my own social justice work is, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Our second question was, “What guidance would Dr. King provide in these troubled times?
Dr. Bernadeia Johnson, Minnesota State Mankato assistant educational leadership professor:
“His most significant piece of writing was written in a small jail cell in a Birmingham jail 59 years ago. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” still holds great significance today. I have heard people utter the words, ‘If Dr. King was alive, he would not be (fill in the blanks).’ I say that to understand what Dr. King would think today, read and listen to his words.”
Brandi A. Hodge:
“Dr. King was an intelligent and thoughtful leader who believed in equal rights for all humans. He would encourage us to keep fighting for the rights of all people and learn to love your neighbor. Dr. King provided us the blueprint. Now it is up to this generation and generations to come to use that and build a better future for all.”
“I would never assume to know how Dr. King would react to recent events, but what I do know is he would encourage us to all to use our voice, stand up for what is right, be bullish in our convictions, and do it all nonviolently.”
“I think Dr. King would be struck by how sanitized his story has become. Dominant narratives have subsumed him and made him into this Disney character. Toward the end of his life, Dr. King was starting to think more and more globally. He understood that an even wider collective was needed to combat the racism and hate that was hurting our people here in the U.S.
We ought to prioritize learning and teaching the aspects of Dr. King’s philosophy that made people who were comfortable with the status quo uncomfortable. I think he’d advise us to follow that trajectory.”
“I believe the guidance and direction that Dr. King would provide us with today…would remind us that although we may have different backgrounds, lived experiences, skin colors, orientations and political views, we’re all in this thing together. I believe Dr. King would emphasize the power and importance of purpose and unity.”
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan:
“In my heart, I believe that Dr. King would still be focused on the very issue he was working on when he was murdered: the Poor People’s Campaign. There’s so much more to do after two years of some individuals and big corporations making exorbitant profits during a global pandemic.
There are too many “leaders” who pervert Dr. King’s words and legacy to fit their own agenda. I think he would be saying the exact same things, and I’m not sure today’s world is one that wants to hear it. We must keep speaking uncomfortable truths.”