How Should King’s Legacy Be Lived Today?

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day we asked several community members to answer the question, “How can Dr. King’s legacy be lived today?” Their responses follow.

I grew up LOVING Martin, but it wasn’t until I grew older, past the public school propaganda, that I began to understand his real stance, his real power. This was a man who wasn’t afraid to show up. If we want to honor his legacy, it starts there. Get together with your family first, than your neighborhood and local community, choose a project to work on together, and do it. It’s only going to be a dream until we all show up and make it a reality. We are the ones he was dreaming about, let’s make it happen.

 Jamil Suleman


Dr. King said, “The right to sit at a lunch counter is empty if you cannot afford a meal.” He recognized the essential connection between racial and economic justice. His legacy reminds us: we are all connected. We are all responsible for one another and we all have a role to play in fighting injustice.

Catherine Morrison

Nearly fifty years since Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech “The Three Evils of Society” at the National Conference for New Politics in Chicago, we’re facing the uncertain reality of our country’s new government and a continuance of racist and xenophobic attitudes towards others.

“There has never been a solid, unified and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans. The step backwards has a new name today, it is called the white backlash, but the white backlash is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalences that have always been there. It was caused neither by the cry of black power nor by the unfortunate recent wave of riots in our cities. The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation.” he said.

If we’re going to live MLK’s legacy today, we need to continue fighting the white backlash that he once spoke of; it feels more prominent today than it did the past eight years and there’s still not enough being done by loving and morally competent white americans (like myself) to educate the ignorant ones.

Standing up against racism and not hiding from it is essential. When someone makes a racist comment or treats another person unfairly because of the color of their skin, call the racist person out for doing it and let them know it’s not acceptable. Listen to your neighbors of color and respect their experiences in an America that unfortunately has still not changed enough in the past 50 years. 

He later said in that same 1967 speech, “However for the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country, even today, is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists. Racism can well be, that corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on western civilization.”

Let’s not ever let that curtain come down.

Matt Mills McKnight


There is an aspect of Dr. King’s legacy that is seldom discussed. It is, I believe, the most profound lesson for today’s community organizers and activists.

The Civil Rights movement had to decide what type of organizing to create as its infrastructure. Ella Baker, probably the most important community organizer of that era, advocated for a decentralized approach, in contrast with the hierarchical, male-centered process of Black churches. Her Wikipedia entry gives us this quote:

You didn’t see me on television; you didn’t see news stories about me. …My theory is: strong people don’t need strong leaders.

She believed that centralized, leader-focused organizations could easily be defeated by destroying the credibility of the leader or outright killing him. This was exactly what happened with the death of Dr. King. Effective 21st Century organizing requires that lesson be learned and implemented.

Lola  E Peters


Don’t “stumble against the future.” Understand “the line of progress is never straight” and that “The inevitable counterrevolution that succeeds progress is taking place.” Employ “nonviolent direct action.”

Don’t have a “slogan without a program.” Remember “bitterness is blindness.” Remember life is “not something that we find but something that we must create.”

Don’t overlook “the physical extermination of the American Indian.”  Express the inner life via “art, literature, morals and religion.”

Is Identity Politics congruent with these suggestions, a stepping stone to deeper experience, or a sign of the pathological narcissism of the selfie age? King’s legacy is clear if we go back to his words.

(Every quote above is from Dr. King’s book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community)

Paul E. Nelson

In 2017 it can feel like we’re being sent back into battles that we believed were won decades ago. But today we see clear evidence of voter suppression; we witness violent, racially-biased miscarriages of justice from law enforcement; and way too many young black men are channeled into systematic cycles of incarceration. The immediacy of the fight is no less than it was in the ‘60s, and younger generations have risen up to combat the racist institutions, policies, and people in power that intend to roll back social progress and bolster white supremacy.

I believe that a unified voice of dissent will call the most ears, and Rev. Martin Luther King provides us a model of collaborative nonviolent activism that is as relevant today as it was the day of the March on Selma. King’s legacy is firmly entrenched in the American culture of social justice work, and we turn to his work for examples and strategies, with adaptations and adjustments to fit the political climate of today. The New Civil Rights Era is a challenging time, and we need to hold on to the history of King and the other leaders of the earlier Civil Rights Era, who effected change by demanding justice.

Virginia Wright


After Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he told us clearly how he wished to be remembered, “As a Drum Major for Peace and Justice”.  Throughout his activist life, he demonstrated what that looks like.  He stood on the front line of every battle for peace and justice that raged during his watch, including the fights against greedy, bloody capitalist aggressions around the globe…calling we, who wanted to be woke into formation.

 He showed us what the, “Beloved Community” looked like and demonstrated its absolute importance by providing leadership to a strong capable, organized, group of trusted foot soldiers, community organizers and advisers rooted in a powerful love force that is able to withstand acts of unrelenting barbaric terrorism. 

 Therefore, I believe that the best way to live Dr.King’s legacy today is through creative, intelligent, spirit centered, collective action rooted in love of and compassion for the most oppressed of our brothers and sisters, while caring for our personal hearts and souls.  I believe today, more than ever, Dr. King’s legacy is secure and being carried forth by movements such as, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Moral Mondays, Earth Protection actions in South Dakota and Flint.  These actions and the innovative education efforts that point to the intersectionality of all oppressions are the legacies of Dr. King’s beloved community.  And despite decades-long efforts, to dilute and/or erase the true mission of this great man’s life….the torch has been passed.  His REAL dream is in very good hands today.  

Marcella Pendergrass