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The uses and abuses of the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Grand Rapids

January 10, 2023

There were plenty of people who despised Dr. King while he was alive, both poor white people and those with political and economic power.

Once Dr. King’s birthday became a US holiday in 1983, those with economic and political power began to figure out ways to abuse and misuse his legacy. Even those on the far right have misused Dr. King, particularly a quote from his 1963 speech in Washington, in what is referred to as his, “I Have a Dream” speech. One example of how Dr. King’s words from his 1963 speech have been abused is from a document by the group Ottawa Impact. 

Last week, we wrote about how the commercial news media has failed us when it came to investigating the group Ottawa Impact and their ideological statements that were known since March of 2022. In their Position Statement when talking about “Diversity/Critical Race Theory”, the groups writes:

We agree with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that people “should not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” 

This sentence by Dr. King is not only taken out of context, it is used to justify a White Supremacist ideology, an ideology that has real world consequences.

However, far right ideologues are not the only ones to misuses or abuse the legacy of Dr. King. Liberal politicians will misuse the legacy of Dr King, making speeches about the great Civil Rights leader, while at the very same time justifying the largest US Military Budget in US history (President Biden), or local politicians who will justify increased police budgets or their sanctioning of the GRPD to target local activists who are part of the Black Freedom Struggle, just as Dr. King was. 

There are also non-profit organizations who will misuse and abuse the legacy of Dr. King. For example, The Urban League of West Michigan, will be hosting its 23rd Annual Corporate Breakfast on Monday for MLK Day 2023. Business leaders will be invited to participate in the Corporate Breakfast, with networking at 7am, followed by a 7:30am breakfast. The Urban League Corporate breakfast has the following description: 

Every year our Breakfast is an opportunity to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of service and be inspired to live out his dream today in our homes, the community and throughout the world.  It is also a time to celebrate and honor trailblazing leaders in business and throughout the community who personify the Urban League’s mission of a more just, peaceful, equitable and thriving Grand Rapids. 

Now, I am not picking on the Urban League for providing relief to families around housing needs or other social services. This kind of work is always important to minimize the harm being done to families within a White Supremacist, Capitalist system. However, Dr. King was not content with just doing charity work or social service work. The Civil Rights leader wanted to confront the very system(s) that perpetuated racism and poverty. 

In Dr. King’s famous 1967 Beyond Vietnam speech, he states:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.

In concrete terms, Dr. King was all about action, particularly Direct Action to confront systems of power and oppression. When he was organizing in Chicago in 1966, specifically around housing issues, he and a few hundred activists shit down the Dan Ryan expressway as a tactic to get City officials and landlords to meet their demands. Of course, beginning in 1967, Dr. King’s team of organizers began working on the Poor People’s Campaign, which would take place in 1968, with hundreds of thousands of people setting up a tent city in Washington. DC and demanding things like housing, a livable wage and food security, in what King referred to as an Economic Bill of Rights.

Therefore, if the Urban League of West Michigan wanted to honor the legacy of Dr. King, they might consider inviting the families that benefit from their social services to a breakfast for MLK day, instead of Corporate leaders. However, inviting people who are victimized by White Supremacist Capitalism isn’t enough. Instead, inviting them to a breakfast provides an opportunity for people to be organized to make demands and, in the words of Dr. King, dismantle the “edifice that produced beggars.” This strategy, would be a true revolution of values, and it would be a way to truly honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

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