What You Can Do to Highlight MLK's Radical Legacy

Across the country, cities often celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a Day of Service, in which people are encouraged to volunteer for their communities. But this year, organizers coast-to-coast are pushing for a more radical approach to honoring the true legacy of the civil rights leader.

“While we recognize the importance of service, Dr. King was not assassinated because of his charity work,” Rev. Mark Tyler told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He was assassinated because he challenged the status quo.” 

Tyler is one of hundreds of activists nationwide organizing a Reclaim MLK action to pay tribute to King’s radical legacy of civil disobedience. Ferguson Action, an organization anchoring the national Black Lives Matter movement, put out the call to Reclaim MLK this year, stating:

"Martin Luther King Jr.’s life’s work was the elevation, honoring, and defense of Black Lives. …This movement was built on a bold vision that was radical, principled, and uncompromising. … Unfortunately, Dr. King’s legacy has been clouded by efforts to soften, sanitize, and commercialize it. Impulses to remove Dr. King from the movement that elevated him must end. We resist efforts to reduce a long history marred with the blood of countless women and men into iconic images of men in suits behind pulpits."

Ferguson Action’s national demands include demilitarizing law enforcement, a comprehensive federal review on police abuse and the passage of the End Racial Profiling Act, among others. Several cities are participating in four-mile marches for police accountability.

While local Reclaim MLK actions are standing in solidarity with this national push, communities are also broadening the lens of racial justice for their events. In Philadelphia, where 10,000 are expected to march, Tyler and fellow organizers are demanding an end to “stop and frisk,” a citywide $15 minimum wage, and a democratically controlled school system.

In Oakland, CA, organizers are planning 96 hours of direct action culminating in a Jobs and Economy march on Monday, which aims to connect the dots between police violence and economic violence. Protesters will start at the Fruitvale BART station, where police killed Oscar Grant in 2009, and march to Coliseum City, the site of a new redevelopment project.

“What we want to make clear is that police violence is a bookend of gentrification,” said Cat Brooks, who is helping to organize the march. Brooks is the co-chair of the ONYX Organizing Committee, which was born out of the struggle for justice for Oscar Grant and the need for black leaders to be at the forefront of that movement. ONYX’s Anti Police-Terror Project, which launched several months ago and is hosting the march, came from the need to have a long-term, sustained conversation around police abuse.

“Police come into communities at the beginning to do massive sweeps to get people out,” she continued. “And then the new folks, predominantly white and wealthy folks, move in. And then the police come on the other side to keep folks out or to heavily penalize folks who are still there.”

Oakland’s Coliseum City project is seeking to transform a large area in East Oakland, where many residents have already been displaced, “into a world-class sports, entertainment and science & technology district that boasts a dynamic and active urban setting with retail, entertainment, arts, culture, live and work uses.”

In response, one of the demands of Oakland’s Reclaim MLK march is a Health Impact Assessment reporting how many residents will be displaced by the new development. They’re also asking that the project’s hiring policy enforce living-wage jobs with benefits. Fifty percent of the project’s jobs would go to people of color and 51 percent would be protected for disenfranchised populations, such as people on parole.

Brooks said that in order to sustain a movement, organizers have to help people see the bigger picture.

“If we’re only talking about policing and people are able to stick that in a vacuum or the state is able to compartmentalize that, it will be a lot easier to put that box away and keep moving forward,” Brooks said. “If we start connecting all of the ways war is being waged on black people and the negative impacts that that war has across race…that allows us to do what is critical in this moment which is deep political education and hopefully mobilizing new people at large numbers into the movement for real change.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly to highlight injustice, especially in the last years of his life when he organized the Poor People’s campaign. The campaign called for guaranteed employment and more affordable housing. King linked capitalism’s injustice with racism and militarization. He once said, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Brooks said the Reclaim MLK actions provide a chance for people nationwide to get involved with building a better future.

“It’s an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the type of society we want to live in,” she said. “King is a figure that really speaks to all of us to rally around because he was an inspiration to the country. We are in the process of the next social justice movement in our country and you’re going to have to pick a side. Are you going to be on the right side of history and justice or are you going to be on the wrong side?”

Find an MLK action near you.


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