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Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. 50 Years after his death

By: Chery Glaser

 

A Los Angeles resident collapses in grief while reading the details of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, 1968. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

People across the country will be taking time out today to mark the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King has, of course, become a civil rights icon in the U.S. and around the world and his leadership and his vision are a key part of this country’s history.

KCRW talked to Chair of the Department of African-American Studies at UCLA, Marcus Anthony Hunter, about Dr. King’s legacy and what ties his work has to today’s activists. He says one takeaway from Martin Luther King’s leadership is that “you can’t afford to have a freedom struggle that isn’t inclusive. So you need to include all of the strategies that are possible. You need to include all of the people who are possible, says Hunter. “The only way for everybody to be free is for everyone to be involved in that freedom project.”

Marchers with signs gather to mourn Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their messages include, “End white racism,” “I have a dream,” and “We mourn Dr. King,” 1968. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

KCRW: Some historians, some activists, say that we have whitewashed Dr. King, that his detractors have done it too in some ways diminish his accomplishments make him less radical while his supporters have done it by turning him into a legend and not a three dimensional person. Do you agree with that? And do you see danger in it?

MAH: I mean one of the problems with history is that of course says “his story.” And so part of what happens is that one of the tensions is that he was murdered. And so he isn’t able necessarily to tell the story of himself in a way that is more in line with what he thought of himself.

And so that leaves the rest of us, who are survivors of that assassination, pulling at different pieces and in some cases some of those pieces are used out of convenience. You know it’s very convenient to only think of Martin Luther King as a very unflawed super human being because it’s easier to believe in a super hero than a regular everyday person as doing heroic things. And so I think part of it is the convenience of particular narratives. I wouldn’t say whitewashed, and that I think that what he’s been used as is and what is possibly dangerous is as a shorthand for a lot of other names who deserve the same kind of attention and the same kind of attention to the history and their contribution. So I would say one of the critical dangerous areas around how MLK is understood in the narratives around him are not always giving the time and attention and the respect to the collective folk.

Clergy and mourners march to First Methodist Church, 8th and Hill Streets, on April 8, 1968, where services were held for Dr. Martin Luther King. View is from the top of the church. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

KCRW: If Dr. King were alive today what do you think he would find most encouraging in the ongoing push for civil rights of all kinds.

MAH: I think he would be most proud of the idea that people are still agitating for freedom. You know that we are still marching. I think that’s an important connection to his legacy and an important way to think about his last days in Memphis. He was murdered as he was marching for poor people’s rights and for workers’ rights. And so I think it’s important that we’re thinking about his legacy in ways that think about if he were looking down on us what would he be saying from the mountaintop. And I think he would be very proud to see Black Lives Matter marching. He would be very proud to see the March for Women. He would be very proud to see the March for Our Lives. So the idea of marching for justice and taking to the streets I think is most inherent and important to his legacy and I think does the best honor to that legacy, in effect.

The historic Clayborn Temple bell rings in Memphis, Tennessee.
The historic Clayborn Temple bell rings in Memphis, Tennessee.
MEMPHIS, TN – APRIL 04, 2018: Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. speaks, as his family stands near him, from the balcony outside room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, where he was when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. The city is commemorating Dr. King’s legacy before his death on the balcony outside his hotel room on April 4, 1968. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Crowds grew silent Wednesday as bells rang out 39 times in Atlanta, Georgia and Memphis, Tennessee, for the age the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was at the time of his assassination.

Cities across the United States honored King with ceremonies and performances, as well as reflections on what today’s civil rights advocates can do to carry forward his legacy 50 years after his death.

 

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