How Can Seattle Live King’s Legacy?

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day the Emerald posed a question to community members and local officials: How can Seattle truly live Dr. King’s Legacy? Their responses follow.

Legacies are tricky. With Dr. King’s, we tend to paint with a broad brush – highlighting his charisma yet glossing over the virtue of his persistent study and growth. Dr. King was a real person – learning and evolving until the dark day he was shot. We should recognize this growth as integral to his legacy, and hold the words and actions that shortly preceded his death as the culmination of his worldview.

By 1968, after years of fighting segregation in the South, King labored over broader systemic problems like poverty and economic injustice stating, “It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee an annual income.” Through his work, Dr. King came to recognize that black liberation would require “forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism and materialism.”

He was determined to use the resources and technology of his day to eradicate poverty and to end global suffering and he implored our nation to “recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of society.” We should strive to live up to these ideas here in Seattle. In King’s image, we should have hopeful rallies and clean up our neighborhoods, but we must also utilize our collective resources to organize for workers, end homelessness, and radically change the structure of our city that is leaving so many behind.

Andrew Johnston, community member


Dr. King in “The American Dream” speech in 1961 said, “As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars.” The idea that individuals can somehow avoid the adverse impacts of poverty simply by hoarding wealth is false. Not only is it unjust and inequitable to have economic inequality, studies also show that the greater the economic disparity is between the rich and poor, the worse the health outcomes are for everyone in the population, including the wealthy. Dr. King’s more radical messages opposing wars of aggression and the often overlooked “Poor Peoples Campaign” that called for “a radical redistribution of economic and political power” aimed at getting at the root causes of poverty.

In order to create meaningful and lasting change we must undo historically racist, classist and sexist policies to fight poverty and improve the health of our community. 50 years after his death, I stand with Dr. King and the movement supporting the revival of the Poor People’s Campaign, as the injustices he fought against still fester today. 

Teresa Mosqueda, Seattle City Councilmember  

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I think that Seattle can best live Dr. King’s legacy by continuing to promote peace, continuing to engage and empower our young people. I think it is imperative to create equitable access to facilities and programs for all of our communities.

I am very proud of our city. There are so many organizations and just members of our community who are committed to getting better, and doing better, by showing the community how and what peaceful collaboration looks like. 

Cortez Charles, community organizer


As a civil rights icon, Martin Luther King Jr. has inspired millions of people throughout the country. On this day, we honor and celebrate the tireless efforts of Dr. King to pursue a better future for all Americans. Dr. King worked to provide a larger voice for marginalized voices. His work sparked change in the hearts and minds of Americans and sought to achieve economic, racial and social equality for everyone. While we are working towards an equal America, we have not achieved Dr. Kings’ complete dream. For all the progress we have made, we risk falling back if we do not stand up to the new rise in white supremacist bigotry on display most notably in Charlottesville last year, and in far too many other places. We must unequivocally say that a diverse America is a stronger America.

 We still must undertake fundamental endeavors that will improve the quality of life for Americans. Through community and civic engagement, we can pursue action that will bring forth transformative change. Throughout the year, we should reflect on his work to attain social justice. By the pursuit of change, we can make the tenets of Dr. King’s dream a reality for all.

Adam Smith, Congressman of Washington’s 9th Congressional District


Living Dr. King’s legacy is to work our damnedest to cultivate spaces where little black girls and boys can hold hands with all children safely and lovingly. The more racially segregated our city becomes, the fewer opportunities for non- black children and families have to build relationships and positive racial understanding of brown and black children. The erasure, inequity and displacement of our city’s Black, Indigenous and brown communities is shameful and dangerous. 

Grassroots student and teacher-led movements for teaching ethnic studies in high schools and Black Lives Matter in Schools week are building power for our communities of color to reclaim our history. The fight and responsibility to smash anti-Blackness is on each of us, especially non-Black POC as we honor that our liberties are grounded in the Black civil rights movement. It is on our white parents to teach their children about undoing white supremacy.

Our city’s biggest growing concern, the racial wealth gap. How do we restore economic power and home ownership back to our Black and Indigenous communities? Your purchasing power can change income disparity by 80 percent. Folks can change business practices and individual spending to patronize 5 percent of your income to POC owned businesses in poorer neighborhoods.

As a mother of two Asian boys, I will continue to make sure my children know that Black Lives Matter is a movement ground in love and humanity. Our FOCS Families Of Color Seattle growing community gives testament that there’s infinite powerful love to be shared together when we are invited in. 

 Amy H. Pak, Founder of FOCS  


Seattle can best live Dr. King’s legacy by being relentless, fearless and uncompromising in its fight for justice, but always from a place of love and faith.  His wisdom and strategies allowed him to build allies from those who were either indifferent or oppositional and in doing so, build an army of advocates who could not be defeated.  Seattle should honor him by being inclusive, selfless and always striving to build allies in a good cause and not being seduced by the temptation of self-righteousness or self-importance.

Bruce Harrell, Seattle City Councilmember


In 1858, there was one Black person that lived in Seattle. In 1900, there were 406. By

1940, there were 3,789, against the backdrop of an entire city population of 368,302 – blacks making up only roughly 1 percent.

Paired with redlining, labor inequalities, and the un-civil rights laws of the day, upward mobility, let alone physical acknowledgment, was something nil considered.

75 years later (2010) and Seattle isn’t much different, with that number rising to roughly8 percent. Contrast that with a white population of 70 percent.

Seattle has been unable to grapple with its position on race because embedded deep in our cities history is an ingrained inability to pay attention to the concerns of race, and an inability to pay attention to the concerns of humanity. What you don’t see, you don’t care about.

Where does that leave Seattle? Dr. King’s fight continues. It’s not just a fight for integration. There is a storm brewing in this country, and it will take an effort that recognizes humanity.


So it seems, we come to an impasse because at this point, our definition of humanity is incomplete.

Humanity must be defined as racial equity, that is actualized socially, politically, economically, and environmentally.

In the words of Dr. King, “The universe is so structured that things do not quite work out rightly if [humans] are not diligent in their concern for others. The self cannot be self without other selves.”

We must redefine humanity through the abundance of our natural similarities, and not through the insignificance of our unnatural differences.

Benjamin Hunter, musician and community organizer   


The message of Dr. King continues to ring loudly but does not ring true in too many lives.

When we look at Washington and the turmoil of our current president, it couldn’t be more clear we are still in the struggle for equality. The President takes pride in his racist words and actions against African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, and DREAMers.  

Intolerance is still part of the fabric of our society, which is why Dr. King’s ideas and the principles that he stood for are so urgently needed today. We are and must be a City that stands for justice.

I believe that we are the change that we command, and it is our duty to continually strive towards equal opportunity. Our City can best live Dr. King’s legacy by never wavering on the progress we need to make in our City.

We must and we will take action to address institutional and structural racism, create true economic empowerment for all residents, reform our broken criminal justice system, invest in education for our children including free college, and build trust between our communities and our police department. 

Seattle can be the City that leads the nation on race and social justice.

Jenny Durkan, Seattle Mayor


In his 1967 speech at Stanford University, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described how communities of color are “perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Fifty years later, Seattle’s communities of color still experience not just economic disparity but economic displacement from their neighborhoods.

Many in Seattle march in protest of racial inequality, yet we might still ask what Dr. King asked about protests in 1967, “…do these folks who are quick to march also demand genuine equality?” How do we fight for racial justice beyond marches? How do we deepen our engagement in the political process? Or find our own collective power through building community, so that we are challenging the system from within and not just from the fringes?

What if we created a new kind of economic justice through community cohesion? One that included:
  • shifting to restorative justice principles – like the peacemaking circles being used at Community Passageways
  • promoting new systems of cooperative economics – like the work to create a land trust in Africatown
  • guaranteeing food and community sovereignty – like the equitable development and food justice work happening in Rainier Beach.

In order for Seattle to live the legacy of MLK, we must fight for systemic change, deepen our engagement and ensure that everyone enjoys the “sunlight of opportunity” for themselves and their families.

Tammy Morales, community organizer


For so many throughout our country, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the original, civil rights trailblazer.  As a civil rights lawyer, who tested the limits of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I thank Dr. King for leaving a rubric of laws that social justice minded lawyers could use as a sword in the face of injustice.  But, of course, he’s done so much more for our country.

Dr. King lived in a period of time in American history that tested our values and humanity. This unprecedented movement cut a path through the deepest, darkest forest of oppression and utilized the black community’s American reality to disrupt centuries of legally-sanctioned racism.  

On the eve of the single day that we as Americans recognize the significance of this historical work and feel the weight of what is yet to be done, we are reminded why this work is critical to our core values.  Just a few days ago President Donald J. Trump referred to African countries and El Salvador as “shitholes.”  I was born in 1977.  The Civil Rights Act, Brown v. Board of Education and other landmark civil rights victories had been won about 13 years before my birth.  Like many of today’s 45 and under crowd, I did not grow up in an era where the most powerful person in the world would so flippantly refer to a people’s heritage as a feces depository.  

But, in this contemporary moment and others, we are wise to keep Dr. King’s legacy in mind.  In a time when communities of color are under veracious attack — at a level that many of us youngsters have not experienced — we must recenter our work on Dr. King’s principles of love, inclusion and peace.  This does not mean that we are complacent.  It means that we are too smart to be baited by tired and old divide-and-conquer tactics that seek to fracture and divide our black, brown and immigrant communities.    
Movements are not a single person and Dr. King was not just one man acting alone. He was a master at bringing multicultural communities together. And it took a broad, committed and united group of people, each with their own talents, to fight together from every angle and every day for equity.  They’re constant hope, like mine today, was to find meaningful, lasting change.
To practice and live Dr. King’s legacy every day, I simply say: let’s join together. There is no one “right” way to solve inequality, but many.  Whether your contribution is joining a rally, financially supporting an organization you believe in, or supporting a person in need, know that change starts with each one of us.  Even a small act of kindness can create a lasting ripple.   
The path through the forest of oppression has been cut. Now it’s up to all of us — together — to permanently pave the way and to invite others to join us in the ongoing fight for equity.  

Lorena Gonzalez, Seattle City Councilmember


When we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we often find ourselves reminded of his words. And certainly, he had a gift for giving voice to the yearning and promise of justice. Yet, I am struck by his legacy of action.

His call for unity, love—and ultimately justice—required action. Action in speaking truth to power. Action in a non-violent and civil disobedience. Action that meant showing up, every day, demanding all humanity be respected. And action that was always rooted in the communities most vulnerable.

His recognition that those communities know the actions that will give them their full humanity. Seattle must continue to move past words of progress and fully into the action of progress. A progress that lifts up the most vulnerable communities for the answers that will further transform and elevate our city.

Such action requires us to stop the practice of caging children. Such action requires us to invest in community-based policing and away from militarized practices. Such action requires us to care for our houseless neighbors. With more communities standing up to say we can do better, we get ever closer to his vision.

Kirsten Harris-Talley, community organizer


Stop Incarcerating our Black and Brown youth! 

Luis Rodriguez, business owner (The Station)

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I feel like Seattle needs to realize that MLK staged protests against police brutality, racism, and economic inequality in the 60’s and that in 2018 we are still fighting against the same issues.

Black people have not made economic progress as a people at all. We owned one half of one percent of America’s wealth post SLAVERY in the 1800’s and in 2018 we still own nearly the same percentage.

With Seattle having some of the richest men and companies in the world, I feel like it is time for our city to set the tone for the rest of the nation and start investing millions of dollars into helping people of color become manufacturers, entrepreneurs, producers, and educators.

Seattle should be the first city to pay reparations to black people. Black folks should get free college tuition, interest-free property and business loans, along with our 40 acres and a mule (but now we need that mule to be a Ram Truck).

If we had the opportunity to educate our own people in our own schools and hire our own professors and teachers that alone would lift us to another level economically, spiritually, and mentally. It will take us five hundred years to get real progress fighting this Injustice system along with not having the economic power for change.

It’s time for Seattle to stop talking about how liberal we are and really start being about lifting up communities of color in this city. We are constantly talking about how liberal this city is but in reality the statistics don’t reflect the language.

When we talk about MLK we usually forget about the economic empowerment that he constantly preached about and we also start forgetting about where he started changing his message of non-violence and integration to questioning what integration actually looked like. 

Real integration and real liberalism looks like sharing the power structure of society.

I don’t think everyone in our local power structure is ready to share power with communities of color. But I feel like we have a chance to set a new tone in this nation that is truly needed. It’s time for Seattle to be The Shining Light on the hill and show the rest of the nation that all our country’s wealth that was accumulated off of the backs of slaves who built this country can be repaid to their descendants.  

These multi-billionaires in Seattle with not even miss any money or funding that would be poured into programming to empower the black people in this city. It would be considered lunch money to them. It’s time for us to step up and be who we act like and say we are.

Dominique Davis, Founder of Community Passageways

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If Dr. King was here with us today, he would call on us to have faith in our fight for justice and to substitute courage for caution. He would call on us to work passionately and unrelentingly for the very vision of our country that inspires so many around the world. For that more perfect union that we know is still ahead of us, for that society that remembers that we are all better off when we’re all better off. Dr. King would remind us that justice is what love looks like in public.

He would call on us to move into that plane of higher education, that plane of moral consciousness where we simply cannot stand by as injustice occurs around us. He would call on us to address economic inequality by raising the minimum wage and enacting real tax reform whose benefits accrue to the masses and not to the top 1% and the wealthiest corporations. Dr. King would call on us to pass the DREAM Act and support the futures of 1.5 million young people across the country. He would call on us to expand and support the Affordable Care Act and health care for everyone so that no one is one health care crisis away from bankruptcy.

Our work is still to fight for justice and build that beloved community where each of us has a place to stand regardless of the color of our skin or where we live or how much money we have in our pocket. And in this beloved community, we would tackle the legacies of racism and implicit bias that we all carry with us with courage and with fortitude. We work together to build that community that inspires us and to leave a world to our children that makes us proud and most importantly, we operate always from a place of generosity and abundance rather than fear and scarcity.

Pramila Jayapal, Congresswoman of Washington’s 7th Congressional District

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We’ve got to take back MLK Day from being a sanitized, faux progressive, “I Have a Dream” type of day where solidarity is emphasized, but only on the most superficial levels.

I’ve been told I am “more Malcolm than Martin.” I understand the point, but I prefer to study the synthesis of these two towering Revolutionaries. It is a significant task to outline how these two should be seen as complementary and not competitors- how their respective legacies have evolved into tangible sources of inspiration for generations of activists, artists, orators, organizers, and even some of the aforementioned faux progressives who claim to identify with the dream, but fail to defend the vision. Dr. King noted this divergence as “intellectual assent” vs. “actual belief.” “This is no day to pay lip service…we must pay life service.”

On this day of honoring Dr. King, however, I also believe it to be of the UTMOST importance to acknowledge and honor the dynamic, beautiful, and resolute Womxn who stood right next to him: the legendary Coretta Scott King. She is just as deserving of homage and reverence as her husband. (Peace to Sis. Betty Shabazz!)

Sister Coretta Scott King could be noted as the reason why Dr. King’s legacy persisted and is now a household name. She fought tooth and nail for over two decades to ensure that his birthday be established as a national holiday. At the time of his (and the SCLC’s) organizing in the 50’s and 60’s, Dr. King is recorded to have had a 55% approval rating by Black folx in the U.S. and it is well documented that most white folx in the U.S. were in firm opposition of his organizing – hence, the U.S. Government conspiring to have him assassinated in 1968. The amalgamation of this particular fight for a day of commemoration came in 1983 when Ronald Reagan (of all people) was forced to declare Dr. King’s birthday as an official holiday.

A little closer to home for Seattleites – it wasn’t until 1986 that our home county, King County, adopted the “King” to refer to Martin Luther King Jr. In 2007 the official logo was finally changed to an image of his face. The original namesake was William Rufus King, an Alabama slave holder and politician who is noted for serving the shortest term as Vice President in 1852, holding it for less than five weeks.

The depth of the history of this day is profound. I encourage everyone to not focus on the routinized elements of this celebration. Instead, study how Malcolm and Martin were congealing their analyses around the time of Malcolm’s dubious assassination. Learn how Sis. Betty Shabazz and Sis. Coretta Scott King influenced their respective husband’s organizing efforts.

Challenge the internalization of namesakes that defend the status quo and ask why the Truth isn’t communicated plainly. These forms of scholarship will bring about a mental liberation that will establish itself in reality.

To you who dare stand in the way of those pursuing justice and Ma’at (truth, harmony, and balance) – and to you who are growing weary in the fight for Liberation and Truth, I leave you with this:

“The yearning for Freedom eventually manifest itself…”

RELL BE FREE, poet, educator and community organizer

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In order for Seattle to best live Dr. King’s legacy we must first come to an understanding that we cannot have justice in part and expect peace to be whole. Dr. King’s dream requires us to be dissatisfied with any less than justice for all. In order for us to truly achieve the dream we must be willing to draw hard lines in the sand; we must be willing to put people over profit; we must be willing to listen to and follow the lead of the most impacted in our city; and we must redefine success within the context of honoring our human dignity. When we begin to define our success by how well we treat the most vulnerable amongst us and not by a profit margin we will begin to see Dr. King’s dream become a plausible reality.

Nikkita Oliver, community organizer 

All photos in the body of the article belong to the public domain 

Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Ron Gonzalez 

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