The continued erasure of MLK’s legacy

The portrayal of the leader as passive and accommodationist damages our capacity to continue his fight for radical change


Photo courtesy of Robert W. Kelley/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

MLK links arms with protestors at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963

Jannah Sheriff

Every year on January 18, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy, often regarded as a symbol for the Civil Rights Movement and racial justice. Colorful infographics pop up on social media with short quotes, agreeable moral platitudes like “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that” that though beautiful, do not speak much about his actual beliefs and values. 

There is a widespread tendency to reduce his legacy in this manner, idealized to be passive and flawless, manufactured to be more accommodating and less controversial. MLK is beloved to Americans, but the image of MLK that many revere is an oversimplification of the leader he was and what he stood for. It’s like that cliche — some people don’t love him, they love the idea of him. And as a result, we have made MLK agreeable to all just to protect ourselves from the discomfort of knowing that the progress he fought for is still on the line today. 

Martin Luther King Jr. is portrayed as a starter of chaos and violence within the country in a cartoon editorial run by Birmingham News in 1967.

This year, the whitewashing of his identity became more clear than ever as some critics of the modern Black Lives Matter movement used MLK as a tool to attack the group, saying that he would be disappointed or angered at what the Civil Rights Movement has become.

Our tendency to simplify and whitewash his legacy is repeated both in the media and education systems; from a young age, elementary school curriculums portray him as uncontroversial and a nondisruptive advocate of change. Words like “passive” or “peaceful” take precedence when discussing the methods he used for change, ignoring his description of riots to be the “language of the unheard” and that he was not advocating for being passive but rather strategic and militant in response to hatred. This warped image appeals to the American tendency to wash away the negativity of our past, ultimately serving to delegitimize the modern Civil Rights Movement by suggesting that it is simply not on par with the past. 

But what exactly are we erasing? 

For one, MLK didn’t enjoy popular support during his lifetime. His protests directly challenged the status quo, and his steadfast support of social democratic reform, worker unionization, UBI policies and anti-war views villainized him in the eyes of many. In fact, his solidarity with the poor and working-class, along with his vocal opposition to the military intervention in Vietnam, earned King a low approval rating that left a majority of the country at odds with him at the time of his death. King, along with many Black activists in the 60s, was also actively targeted by governmental organizations in the process of his advocacy, even receiving letters from the FBI urging him to take his own life

A cartoon published by The Southeast Missourian this year satirizes the modern civil rights movement as a bastardization of what Martin Luther King Jr. fought for.

MLK also held anti-capitalist economic views that fueled his fight against poverty and economic injustice. As he said, “I am convinced that capitalism has seen its best days in American, and not only in America but in the entire world. It is a well-known fact that no social institut[ion] can survive when it has outlived its usefulness. This, capitalism has done. It has failed to meet the needs of the masses.” 

These were not just the anti-capitalist musings of a young man, but words that he repeated throughout his life, molding his solidarity with the plight of workers and the poor. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King also famously stated that the greatest obstacle to Black liberation was not the open bigotry of the Klan member but rather the complacency of the white moderate, able to recognize the issues in the country but unwilling to support the radical progress needed to resolve them. Being sympathetic towards social change but ignoring the economic changes needed to dismantle the issue is an ineffective stance. 

Youtube Channel UnionSolidarity: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Labor, Wealth and Justice

The erasure of the policies he fought for leaves us lacking a real understanding of the history of his cause. By ignoring these ideas and beliefs, we fabricate a whitewashed image of the leader. MLK was calling for a redistribution of wealth and a restructuring of our American way of life. Reducing his image to be more palatable and satisfy our own biases does a disservice to the views that he actually held. 

Not only that, but focusing solely only on him in our representation of the Civil Rights Movement erases the diverse range of perspectives that Black leaders held at the time, from Malcom X to Angela Davis and many others within a massive movement for justice. These leaders not only actively fought against injustice, but worked within their communities to provide protection and create beneficial social programs aiding the struggling.

We must understand that many of the issues that Martin Luther King Jr. fought for remain contentious to this day, and we are still working towards the changed society he envisioned. Though it may be overstated, we must be active beyond just posting an infographic or becoming “aware.” While it may be easy to adopt a doomer attitude of hopelessness against injustice, we should do our own small part in helping our own and other communities. Rather than growing idle, we must continue to effect change outside of purely electoral participation, whether that is through community organizing, mutual aid or any other means viable. We can take inspiration from members of our own community that have gone on to become active to pay our own resources and time forward. In a time when the fight against racial injustice has grown even greater while the vicious flank of white supremacy continues to rear its ugly head, and a new presidency has been ushered in, it is important more now than ever to recognize this.