Martin Luther King’s True Legacy: Revolutionary Ideals

It was a momentous day this past November when the ground breaking for the monument to Martin Luther King, Jr., occurred. Erecting a monument for Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall in Washington will honor a great American. However, when it is built the powerful message that King delivered to his contemporaries will be diluted by effusive rhetoric obscuring historical reality.

The reality is that Martin Luther King held revolutionary ideals rooted in the 18th-century vision of freedom and equality and grounded by a Christian theological vision of social justice. With these ideals, he and his fellow civil rights workers intentionally created national discomfort in cities, north as well as south, throughout the 1960s. Holding true to his principles is what compelled him to take a deeply reflective antiwar stance in the era of the Vietnam War. King articulated the great revolutionary hope that human beings might one day live in a world of individuality, mutuality and respect.

King’s ideals were also derived from a human rights tradition rooted in the long fight against slavery. He recognized that many before him had paved the way for him and his contemporaries to take up the fight for freedom and equality. He felt duty-bound to keep antiracist protests and democratic freedoms alive in the United States even as the forces of Cold War geopolitics were distorting them in the greater part of the world, in the name of political freedom. We should all be mindful that King carried on the tradition of African American political activism that believed in the promise of democracy more deeply than the original framers of the Constitution had intended. His abiding faith in those ideals cost him dearly.

He sacrificed his life to continuous political struggle. His dream sometimes became a nightmare and was met with frustrated reactions that at times were vitriolic, scornful and violent. These responses were sanctioned by law and held in place by custom. It is sad to recollect that most of the American public, either because of fear or complacency, accepted the forms of inequalities that had been heaped upon racial minorities in our country as though they were ordained by God. King, however, sustained a utopian vision of what life could be like for all Americans and people around the world if national leaders and common citizens alike exercised our political will for the common good.

King and his generation did not fully succeed in their efforts to eradicate poverty and end racial disparities in the United States. Nevertheless, they broke the yoke of America’s version of racial apartheid, which makes the United States a better country today than at the time of his death nearly 40 years ago. The lesson the King memorial must call to mind when it is unveiled, lest it become merely another sculpture depicting a great person long dead, is that every generation must wage a political struggle to sustain and gain its democratic freedoms.

Randal Maurice Jelks is an associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and a writer for the History News Service. He is writing a book on one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s mentors, Benjamin Elijah Mays.

January, 2007