Hodge: We are not living up to the true legacy of MLK

Jayla Hodge

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Martin Luther King Jr. is not only celebrated as an American hero, he is the only non-president to have a national federal holiday. While we commemorate King’s deep impacts and march in his honor, it is important we reflect honestly about how his messages resonate with us today, and if they have lived true to their intentions. 

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King has been inaccurately portrayed as solely a prophet of unity. Many use his words without living out the values he promoted or the principles he fought for.

King’s messages have been subjected to misuse and misrepresentation. Like his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, his political legacy is also largely misremembered. 

According to an old 1968 Harris poll, three-quarters of Americans did not think favorably of King and 60 percent of Black Americans thought he was “irrelevant” at the time. The majority of contemporary society was not ready to accept his messages. This is a man that was denounced as an extremist, someone President Ronald Reagan believed to be a “communist sympathizer.” 

It was not until years after his death, mainstream culture consider King a beloved patriot. 

There were many voices and activists during the civil rights era, but King is still generally considered the face of the civil rights movement. We must honestly reckon with why that is.

Even though King was still considered an “extremist,” his message was more generally acceptable to the majority demographic: White people.

In comparison to other civil rights leaders of the time — like Malcom X and Fred Hampton who were more polemical and aggressively rejected systems of white supremacy — King promoted a passive approach to fighting oppression.

He was a more comfortable option in a changing world. 

King is recognized more because White people, not just marginalized identities that the other leaders predominately appealed to, chose him.  

Today, it seems his message has been used to make people feel competent in their inaction when fighting injustice. King’s speeches are often paraphrased and contorted out of context to fit people’s own beliefs. 

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King’s declaration that he wanted his children “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” has been used to promote and support ideas like “not seeing skin color.” It supports the notion that simply loving thy neighbors and not judging skin color is enough to end racism. It is not.

King wanted us not to judge each other in regard to race, but he didn’t want us to ignore it. 

A world that is fair, just and equitable is a dream. One that takes hard work and change to achieve. It requires those with more power, those not in proximity to issues of racism and poverty, to step outside their comfort zones. 

We must recognize when King’s words are being used as a blanket for people to hide behind without applying the lessons and things he promoted. 

We must recognize when King’s words are being used as a blanket for people to hide behind without applying the lessons and things he promoted

Most people only focus on his surface-level messages regarding racism, without advocating for his other stances regarding healthcare, issues of inequity and economic equality that serve as the silent backbones to systems of oppression that keep racism prevalent. 

Many of the conditions of racism, materialism and militarism that King marched against still not only exist, but continue to thrive.  

When we celebrate this hero, let’s celebrate him for who he was. Let’s recognize the other great leaders of the civil rights era that were not as widely accepted by the majority, but equally instrumental. Let’s study more than his “I Have a Dream” speech and reflect on all the issues King spoke about. 

We have made progress and continue to improve as a society, but the day we settle and believe that we are the best we can be is the day King’s dream truly dies.  

Jayla Hodge can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @Jaylahodge.