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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. through a sanitized lens limits our perception of who he actually was

It is important to adopt a more nuanced understanding of historical figures to honor their true impacts on society




Jan. 16 was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a holiday during which the civil rights movement of the 1960s and its figurehead are rightfully celebrated. Many people also take this time to reflect and remember history. The Editorial Board believes that it should also act as a reminder to not take widely accepted representations of historical figures at face value. 

Martin Luther King Jr. is most famous for his “I Have a Dream” speech. He is remembered as an advocate for non-violent protest and the person who brought success to the civil rights movement, and is often the face that represents racial equality in the U.S. 

What has been largely excluded from general curricula is that he was also an anti-war, anti-capitalist, radical leftist.

During a speech King gave at the Riverside Church in Manhattan in 1967, he said, “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such. […] I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. that is largely revered and loved by the wider American public is only a part of who he was. Many choose to emphasize a version more palatable to white society’s narrative of Black civil rights. For example, during the Black Lives Matter movement, many used King as an example of how to “correctly protest” due to his reputation as a champion of nonviolent tactics. And we would like to believe that today, King’s activism would be welcomed with open arms. But in reality, he would likely be met with backlash, ridicule and unrestrained criticism for his more radical ideas, just as he was in the 1960s. 

It is important to make an effort to remember people from the past as they were and not as society portrays them. Remembering historical activists in a sanitized manner erases many of the impacts they have had on marginalized communities. These individuals were once hated and feared for their radical ideologies; to praise them for their contributions to social progress while failing to recognize what made them revolutionaries is disempowering to the communities they served, dishonors their memory and takes away from the nuance of history.

For all historical figures — leaders, politicians, war veterans, pacifists and more — we have to remember that they were more complicated than what we make them out to be. They had flaws and personal lives out of the spotlight. More often than not, they won’t fit a single narrative, and the situation isn’t always simple. 

As a society, we are moving toward a more nuanced, and perhaps more realistic, understanding of history. However, a skewed version is often still taught in American public schools. This is changing, but change happens slowly, and in the meantime, it is our responsibility to dig deeper and challenge our perceptions. 


Written by: The Editorial Board