‘Reclaim MLK’ Protesters Kick Sanitized King Ideology to the Curb

Activists across the United States are fed up with only hearing the ‘I Have a Dream’ version of the slain civil rights leader.

Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

Jan 18, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Education activists have long challenged the dull, one-dimensional, commercialized version of King sometimes taught in schools—the one where kids color photocopied images of the assassinated civil rights activist and hear a small snippet of his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Now, through the “Reclaim MLK” campaign, activists are reminding Americans that King had more than a dream that his children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

In more than 20 cities over the weekend, Reclaim MLK supporters held protests and demonstrations focused on the modern fight for racial and economic justice. Several more protests were planned for Monday, including a walkout by low-wage workers at nine of the nation’s airports.

RELATED: See Why ‘Black Lives Matter’ Isn’t Just About Black People

The hashtag #ReclaimMLK also trended on Twitter on Monday, with people posting video and pictures of themselves raising the call for justice. In Boston, activists braved below-freezing temperatures to stage a “funeral procession for racism, poverty, imperialism, [and] gentrification,” complete with a black coffin.

Folks are also satirizing the focus on the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Others are posting less well-known quotes and speeches from King in which he addressed controversial topics, such as the Vietnam War and capitalism.

In a op-ed published on MSNBC on Monday, human rights advocate Martin Luther King III, who has previously spoken out against the idolization of his father, explained the need to reclaim the holiday as a day of dissident activism, particularly around police brutality.

“The current culture of police violence is symptomatic of a deeper malaise of racial and economic injustice that black and brown people face every day. In the history of our country, we have had several opportunities to address racial injustice, but we have often been offered piecemeal, limited and compromised solutions,” wrote King III. “So on this day, we call on the political leaders from the president on down to seize the moment, as President Johnson did following Selma, to lead on a bold national strategy to address contemporary structural racism in the United States once and for all.”

King III also explicitly connected his father’s work with the Black Lives Matter movement. “Dr. King has left a legacy that says that when we say that black lives matter, we are indeed saying all lives matter. Just like in Memphis when black sanitation workers carried signs saying ‘I am a man,’ they were really saying ‘I am a human being’ who has rights that should be respected like everyone else,” he wrote.

Standing in front of the former Lorraine Motel, the site of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination on April 4, 1968, Memphis sanitation workers Elmore Nickelberry, 76, center, and his son, Terrence, left, hold a replica of the placard used by strikers in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo: Carl Juste/'Miami Herald'/Getty Images)

Reclaim MLK was started in 2015 by Ferguson Action, a nonprofit launched in Ferguson, Missouri, after the November 2014 non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. In the aftermath of the killing of the Charleston Nine in June and the December non-indictment of the officers involved in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Reclaim MLK activists have expanded the campaign’s efforts around several goals.

“Simply put: let’s end the cash cow for jails that cage us, police that kill us, and the weapons that empower them, and [invest in] more resources for our education, health, and strong communities,” the activists wrote.

With racially and economically segregated schools the norm in the U.S., and with black kids academically disenfranchised and suspended six times more often, the activists also demanded that communities of color have control of their education systems. “We demand the ability to decide how our schools run or the way our cities spend money. As we see schools closing in Black communities across the country, while they push us out to make room for wealthy, white residents, our voices matter in these important decisions,” they wrote.
Indeed, Martin Luther King III closed his op-ed by asking people to reclaim his father’s “legacy with calls that go beyond volunteerism or nostalgia for powerful speeches. Let’s reclaim his legacy with a firm commitment to respect and protect human rights for everyone.”