History Untaught: The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hannah Figueroa-Velazquez, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Martin Luther King Day, a moment for remembrance of how far we’ve come as a society and how far we’ve yet to go, is also a day when social media posts are scattered across people’s platforms, citing inspirational quotes by King. The phrases, written in fancy calligraphy on top of an aesthetically pleasing background, commemorate parts of King’s speeches where he spoke of fighting hate with love, or how humankind is a great big family or why peace will always beat violence. 

King’s non-violent approach to dealing with systemic injustice is a unique and memorable aspect of his leadership. However, the cherry-picking of select quotes and complete disregard for other equally important ones pushes forth a message that remains prevalent now more than even preceding the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020: Equality is a wonderful thing to fight for as long as the way one protests is not inconvenient to others. Ultimately, if we wish to rightfully honor King’s memory, we must remember him for all that he preached for, not just the pieces we find most digestible. 

In 1964, King was urged by fellow civil rights leaders to speak out against a “stall-in” to combat job discrimination and segregation where protesters blocked highways in anger over government officials not taking action in response to their frustrations. King refused, claiming, “we do not need allies who are more devoted to order than justice.” 

King, while brilliant and complex in his beliefs, has too often been molded into a one-dimensional character weaponized to condemn riots, condemn unrest and condemn any form of anger that isn’t expressed through peace. 

Furthemore, talk of “MLK wouldn’t have stood for this” when referring to rioting completely misunderstands and diminishes everything King believed in. In fact, when asked about his response to the people of color who disagreed with his non-violence stance, King responded, “riots are socially destructive and self-defeating…But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity.”

Moving forward and making progress rarely looks like comfort. Today, as we reflect on where America triumphs and where America falls short, we can’t look at our history through a lens of only what we wish to see or what we find to be appealing. The truth is, much time has passed, and still, so much change is yet to be made. Our history is multi-dimensional, confusing, and in many places, shameful, but moving forward looks like educating ourselves about historical figures and events for all that they are, not just choosing pieces that fit within our pre-existing views. 

The peace and love that King spoke of pertained to much more than just abstaining from violence. In the words of Dr. King, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.”