Thumbnail: Dr. Martin Luther King’s example and words are as pertinent today as they were during his lifetime.  Rather than quote Dr. King to support whatever position we want to take – conservative or progressive – we need to remember him for the revolutionary that he was and draw courage to demand more of our community than business as usual.


While most of the country celebrates the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for those of us who were in Memphis when he was murdered, this is the day soaked with the kind of emotion that places us vividly once again into the events of April 4, 1968.  The assassination struck America like a bomb, but in Memphis, it was a hydrogen one.

It blew up the fiction of racial harmony, it produced a gaping hole in our self-confidence, and it triggered a self-examination that continues even today.  Even as a 19-year-old college student standing in front of my dorm at Memphis State University and watching the smoke climb in the distant sky, I understood that things would never be the same.

And they haven’t been.

Creating A Sanitized Dr. King

Dr. King’s words continue to inspire and mobilize, particularly when they are interpreted accurately through a revolutionary lens.  In the intervening years, his legacy has been sanitized and his words have been toned down to the extent that they are now quoted by people to justify actions that he clearly would have abhorred.

It’s like the watered down version of Jesus so prevalent in evangelical Christianity today – no longer a revolutionary attacking the established order or advocating for the poor, the marginalized, the imprisoned, and the immigrant, he is transformed to rationalize allegiance to blind capitalism and worker exploitation, persecution of the other, and the use of Bible as a cudgel to bludgeon others.

Today, we rarely hear about Dr. King’s willingness to pursue a heightened level of confrontation and to reject the language of American exceptionalism while calling for meaningful resistance.  In the last year of his life, he was clearly in the midst of a personal evolution, and it is painful to imagine how different America might be if the revolutionary Martin Luther King Jr. had lived.

“It may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” he said at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march on March 25, 1965.  Two years later, on April 4, 1967, he said: “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

Liberation Comes From Power

It is an irony of the Christianization of slavery that while white society was pushing paintings of a European, rather than a Semitic, Jesus, the African American ministers of the day like Dr. King saw Jesus for what he was – a dark-skinned revolutionary – and a century later, they saw Dr. King for what he was – an insurgent, resistance fighter.

Today is also a day to reflect on other thinkers whose philosophy and example inspired Dr. King.

Our own Ida B. Wells, always a few steps ahead of a noose: “That (the Memphis lynchings) is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was – an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.”

Union and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, who defied white threats, said: “True liberation can be acquired and maintained only when the Negro people possess power.  And power is the product and flower of organization…of the masses” and “At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats.  You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold.  If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything.  And you can’t take anything without organization.”

And Dr. King would recognize his sentiment in an appropriate quote for whites on this special day.  Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson: “What better way to use white privilege than to undermine it, raise questions about it, leverage it on behalf of black and brown people, who don’t usually have a voice in the matter at all.”

Morality Demands Action

If Dr. King’s legacy teaches us anything, it is that morality requires action, action drives change, and much, much more change is needed today.

Just think: when Dr. King was killed in Memphis, the median income of white households here earned twice as much as African American families.  They still do today.

And that’s despite African Americans increasing their high school graduation rate from 15% to 86% and the percentage of bachelor’s degrees from 4% to 20%, and with the percentage of African Americans with white collar jobs was rising from about 8% to 53%.

For those for whom the meaning of structural racism and institutional racism is dismissed, they should only look at the facts and how the talk about racial progress drastically lags reality. .

Since Dr. King’s death, the poverty rate for African Americans in Memphis decreased but remains three times more than the white poverty rate.  The black child poverty rate is more than four times the white child poverty rate, and a poor child born in the bottom one-fifth of Memphis’ incomes has a 3% – the worst odds in the continental U.S. – of making it into the top on-fifth

The percentage of African American men not in the labor force has not improved.  The percentage of African Americans in jail or prison has doubled.  There is the need for 33,000 affordable housing units.

White Memphians often respond incredulously when confronted by the fact that their African American neighbors are frustrated and angry about the inequality and inequity that characterize the local economy and the city itself.

The statistics tell a story of too little progress for too long, and today, Dr. King’s life reminds us that accepting the status quo is nothing short of unthinkable.   


Join us at the Smart City Memphis Facebook page for daily articles, reports, and commentaries relevant to Memphis.