Remembering the Forgotten King: Prof. Purnell Shares Thoughts on Breadth of MLK Legacy

Story posted January 14, 2011

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Brian Purnell

Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Brian Purnell teaches the fall course Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in the Making of Modern America. He is currently at work on the publication A Movement Grows in Brooklyn: Civil Rights and Black Power in Brooklyn, New York, 1940-1972. Purnell offers this perspective as the country observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

January 17, 2011, marks the 25th anniversary of the first observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the federal holiday that commemorates King's birthday (January 15, 1929). As with any commemorative celebration, honoring Martin Luther King Jr. through a national holiday is an exercise in historical amnesia. As the nation honors the assassinated hero, we oftentimes choose to forget almost as much as we remember regarding who King was and what he stood for.

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For the most part, commemorations of Martin Luther King Jr. condense his life and the history of the civil rights movement into a narrative that emphasizes American progress. This is especially true regarding the country's history of racism. Annual celebrations of King's life show how he lived and died so that America could finally move past the iniquities of racial slavery and Jim Crow segregation that shaped so much of the country's history. The holiday remembers the Martin Luther King who was a pacifist, a minister of the Christian Gospel, a human rights activist, a Nobel Prize winner, and, in his own words, a "drum major for justice."

Audio of Martin Luther King Jr. at Bowdoin
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Dr. King visited the Bowdoin College Museum of Art to view the groundbreaking exhibition The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting. He is pictured here with Curator Marvin Sadik.

On May 6, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Bowdoin to speak about the civil rights movement and the importance of ending segregation and discrimination in America.

His speech, titled "Goals and Strategies Necessary in the Achievement of Equal Rights," addressed the Civil Rights Bill before Congress.

Read more about King's visit to Bowdoin and listen to his speech here.

Read more about the significance of Dr. King's visit and about Bowdoin's legacy of inclusion.


On the third Monday of January, Americans hear King's speeches that called upon citizens to make a personal and political commitment to join a "beloved community" that would transform American society. Certainly, television, radio, and the Internet will loop the second half of the speech King delivered during the 1963 March on Washington, in which he shared his dream that, one day, the notoriously racist state of Mississippi, and by extension all of America, "will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice."

When Americans look at their nation today there are many areas of life that point to the fulfillment of King's dreams: Historic numbers of African Americans broke through glass ceilings that barred them from higher education and the professional ranks of the middle class; more black people hold elected office than at any time in history; and currently, a black woman and man even live and work in the White House as First Lady and President! Over the decades, women, immigrants from the global South, and gays and lesbians have made similar strides in American civic life. Are these the examples of progress King envisioned when, the night before James Earl Ray assassinated him, he preached to a packed Memphis mass meeting that, "we, as a people will get to the promise land?" Are these aspects of King's legacy we should celebrate during his holiday?

They most certainly are, but that is not where the commemoration of King's life and legacy should end. In addition to remembering Martin Luther King Jr. as the non-violent, Southern civil rights activist who overthrew Jim Crow, we should also recall that the martyr who gave his life to "redeem the soul of America" fought against crippling poverty, unjust war and exploitative labor practices. Many people know that King was murdered standing on a balcony of a motel in Memphis, Tennessee, but few remember that he was in Memphis assisting striking municipal sanitation workers in their fight for living wages and union protection. "All labor has dignity," King told the Memphis garbage workers in March 1968, a month before Ray killed him. "You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages."

The Memphis sanitation strike occurred in the midst of King's "Poor People's Campaign," which would bring people of all colors from around the nation to Washington to demand the federal government help impoverished, malnourished Americans attain adequate clothing, sufficient food, protective shelter and a stronger social safety net. Since the summer of 1965 when Watts, a black section of Los Angeles exploded into violence, King had become very concerned with urban poverty. Housing segregation, unemployment, municipal neglect, and black people's powerlessness in electoral politics combined with automation and the slow beginnings of deindustrialization to create racial "ghettos" that trapped African Americans in dizzying cycles of social crisis and stifling poverty.

King tried to bring a non-violent movement to Chicago from the fall of 1965 through the mid-months of 1967, but failed to produce meaningful changes in the city's economic and social conditions. All King eked out of the Chicago Democratic machine were empty promises. Similar problems of poverty and powerlessness plagued other Northeast, Midwest and West Coast cities, as well as the country's rural areas. Poverty, King saw, was the great equalizer in America: It ignored color and region and ruined all Americans' lives. Poverty and frustration also made Americans susceptible to extreme measures. King saw the urban violence that wracked Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark as a symptom of what would happen if non-violence failed and if inequality plagued American economic and social structures. "Something is wrong with capitalism as it now stands in the United States," King told a group of ministers in November 1967. "We are not interested in being integrated into this value structure. Power must be relocated," King remarked. "A radical redistribution of power must take place."

King hoped that if thousands of poor people who were committed to non-violent civil disobedience converged on the nation's capital the nation would come to grips with its domestic inequality and reorganize its spending priorities. His belief in the promise of the Poor People's Campaign was fueled, in part, by his growing criticism of the Vietnam War. For King, the Vietnam War represented American moral degradation and fiscal irresponsibility. In his first major public statement against the war, which he delivered from New York City's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, King decried the way America sided with "the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor" of Vietnam. The outcome of the war, as King saw it, was "to occupy (Vietnam) as an American colony."

King connected his public anti-war position to what he saw as a desperate need to develop a new plan for addressing urban violence, poverty, and alienation. "I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos," King told the Riverside audience, "without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government." For the rest of his life, King admonished President Lyndon Johnson's contradictory goals of trying to create a Great Society at home, based on a "war on poverty," while he spent millions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of lives in a war against Communism in Vietnam.

King's strong criticism of the Vietnam War made him persona non grata with President Johnson, his erstwhile ally in the civil rights cause. Other major figures in the civil rights movement also ostracized King after he spoke out against Vietnam. Funding sources for King's organization dried. The ostracism took a devastating toll on King's psyche and mood. He was often depressed. King's denunciation of Vietnam, plus his vociferous attacks on economic inequality, also stoked cries within Washington and conservative camps that the Baptist preacher was an agent of Moscow. The FBI intensified its surveillance of King and increasingly tried to tarnish him as a Communist. Indeed, for the last year of his life, the person who has become one of the most powerful symbols of American progress and democracy was branded a dangerous subversive and a traitor to the nation.

Of course, such characterizations of King were (and are) categorically false. King's criticism of economic inequality and war, and his activism for workers' rights all stemmed from his deep-rooted patriotism and his commitment to a Christian social Gospel. When he once called the United States the leading country in "a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy," which threatened to destroy the world through nuclear war, King declared that he had to say such things to America "because I love this country too much to see the drift it has taken."

Perhaps when we celebrate Martin Luther King Day and commemorate King's life and legacy we would do well to remember those parts of King's activism that do not fit so neatly into a narrative of American progress. Our nation is currently involved in two wars overseas. Hardcore unemployment and hand-to-mouth poverty have become ways of life for millions of Americans. States and cities teeter on the brink of bankruptcy. For years divisive rhetoric has continuously dominated political and civil discourse. Even dreadful, deadly political violence has reentered our national consciousness. And these are not just issues Americans face at home. Recent global economic crises; uprisings in the streets of England and Greece; internal conflicts in the Ivory Coast, the Korean Peninsula, and Israel and Palestine; assassinations in Pakistan; the tremendous human suffering after the earthquake catastrophe in Haiti; and drug cartel violence in parts of Mexico all illustrate how poverty, war, human suffering and labor rights are truly global concerns.

Given the troubled, contentious times our nation and world face, perhaps aspects of the forgotten King — the Martin Luther King Jr. who advocated for poor people, spoke up for workers' rights, defended unions, and condemned war — are more useful to remember and discuss than the King we know so well and commemorate each year.

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