Honoring Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years after his death

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.”

KCRW: You teach courses at UCLA. What did your students know about Dr. King? Are they familiar with his work? Is he more of a historical figure to them than a real person?

Marcus Anthony Hunter: When I teach the students, I would say he’s probably one of the few black heroes that most all of the students are familiar with, despite age or generation or background. And I think part of what happened, though, is that he then stands as a representation of a lot of people who students don’t know, for example, Ella Baker or Bayard Rustin. So in some ways what folks know about him is really a reflection of what a collective of black leaders were doing at a particular time and the way history has worked. His name, in many ways, has become the stand-in or shorthand for all of those people. So a lot of times with students I think it’s important to revisit his legacy of not only to amplify what he’s done and what he was about but also who he reflected and who he represented. Because often times the other black women and black men who were behind the scenes, so to speak, get lost in the annals of history. And so his name I think is an opportunity to also lift up the names of other leaders and black advocates for justice that folks may not be familiar with.

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: The fact that he was building on years and years and years of hard work by many people.

MAH: Exactly. I mean some of those people we can think about as predating him like Ida B. Wells or her anti-lynching campaign that was about the problem of lynching across the United States. We can think about W.E.B. DuBois the famous sociologist and professor who is one of the founders of the NAACP which of course then becomes a major instrument for MLK during his protest and his activism while he was alive.

KCRW: One of Dr. King’s hallmarks was nonviolent civil disobedience. Do your students and young activists feel that still a viable approach today or did they think frankly that that’s old school that it’s passive.

MAH:  I think that part of one thing that students I think are really emphasizing is that youth leadership was leading the way vis-à-vis Malcolm X or a Martin Luther King. You know Martin Luther King is in his 30s when people are doing the March on Washington with him. So we’re talking about a very young person and what happens in our climate today is that often times black youth are the last to be listened to. But the most active the most likely to be  victims of many of the systems that many people are mobilizing around and so I think for a lot of young people, Martin Luther King is really an example for the older generation that might be ahead of them as a reminder that actually you know powerful things can happen when you listen to young people. Powerful things are possible when young people have a voice and a seat at the table.

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: Do they feel though that that approach of civil disobedience just doesn’t work perhaps now in an era a much more crowded highly charged media environment?

MAH: I mean it’s two things one and this is what a lot of the elders do for a lot of the young folks to remind them that a lot of the acts like kneeling or acts of civil disobedience are actually consistent with history. But for whatever reason people sort of wipe away that history and give folks the sense that some of these strategies are brand new when in fact many of these strategies are a reflection of a larger tradition, a history, and the black freedom struggle.

I think the other thing that your question is getting at is the tension, I think, and it’s a generational one about how far can we go when we use a particular politics that relies on our ability to be high moral character and respect, that that only goes so far. And I think movements like the movement for black lives, Black Lives Matter, Aside the Daughters in Chicago, are really these efforts to try to do away with resistance strategies that focus on the respectability of the resistor as a way of trying to legitimize movement. That it actually shouldn’t matter those kinds of things about you. It shouldn’t be that you have to be the most high-standing, the most morally unimpeachable person, black people have to provide before people actually listen to your experience. That that part, I think, is at tension. The idea of putting someone forward who then is morally unimpeachable, I think, is not that of not of great interest to young black activists today. They sort of feel as though that particular strategy has only gotten so far. And what we need is as much representation as we can get because black people are all things not just respectable things.

KCRW: Do you ever hear from them, ‘hey you know we’ve had 50-60 years of this. We haven’t gotten far enough. We need to be more proactive we need to be more militant?’

MAH: Yeah, I often hear that and if you allow me, there’s something that a 28-year-old Martin Luther King shares in Mt. Eagle Tennessee in 1957, that is exactly on this point and it is exactly what I say to students when I hear that and it’s from his speech “A Look To The Future.”

He says, “The future is still with vast and marvelous possibilities. Let us not despair. Let us realize as we struggle for justice and freedom we have cosmic companionship.” And there’s a line in there where he says, “this is a great time to be alive.” And so what I bring that back for students is to say a 20-year, 28-year-old Martin Luther King is saying something that is relevance and resonance today that we should not despair we should enjoy that this is a great time to be alive and that as we struggle we do it on the shoulders of and because of people like MLK, people like Rosa Parks, people like Ella Baker.

So for me, you know, visiting with him and thinking about youth responses or some of the younger generations response to sort of MLK is a reminder that all we see or we know of him is not all that he was. And one thing that he was very hopeful about the future and there’s a phrase that I pass on to students often and that is that each of us needs all of us. And I think that’s one of the major takeaways from any of the leaders, we could take from the civil rights movement is that there was a critical awareness, especially in MLK’s legacy and his politics and mobilization, that each person needed every person. And so 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. Now we may all not agree about the strategies of how we activate everybody but we have to have a very critical understanding that at the foundation, the only way for everybody to be free is for everyone to be involved in that freedom project.

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.

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.