By Shammara Lawrence
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to advocating for racial and economic equality in the United States. He believed in racial harmony and fought for equal treatment and protection for Black people under the law, often by leading sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. From leading the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, co-organizing the 1965 march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, to advocating for seminal anti-racism legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Baptist minister and social rights activist will forever remain one of the most influential figures in global history.
Most famously, on August 28, 1963, he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of some 250,000 people, and spoke of a powerful dream in which his “four little 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." He called for civil and economic rights for Black people and the end of racism; even in the face of rampant inequality, Dr. King was hopeful for a better future — one where everyone is respected and treated with dignity.
But Dr. King’s work also goes far beyond that moment. He was radical through and through, a staunch anti-war activist and a believer in not only racial but economic equality for everyone. In 1963, he penned the “Letter from Birmingham” while imprisoned for violating Alabama’s law against mass public demonstrations. In the searing letter, written in response to eight white clergy figures who called his protest for racial equality “unwise and untimely,” he took white moderates to task for being “more devoted to 'order' than to justice;” and for “prefer[ring] a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice”
Fifty-two years after his assassination on April 4, 1968, Dr. King's words have not lost their power, though plenty of people have tried to sanitize his legacy and radicalism while continuing to hinder progress towards racial equality. Yet the civil rights leader’s actions serve as a reminder of the importance of speaking truth to power and fighting for what’s right, no matter the status quo. Today, we honor Dr. King’s legacy on the third Monday of each January; the federal holiday was adopted in 1986, nearly 20 years after it was introduced to Congress — and only formally recognized by all states in 2000.
In commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, seven Black visionaries, thought leaders, and activists — from co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza to United States Women’s National Soccer Team member and FIFA World Cup champion Jessica McDonald — reflect on the profound impact Dr. King’s legacy has imparted on their lives and work, and within the United States. Here, they express a collective hope: that we remember his activism in its totality, and uphold his memory by making his dream a reality for all.
U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Forward
“Martin Luther King Jr. did all of the hard work and put his life out there for his people. That takes courage and bravery. He is one reason why Black Americans are able to live the life we want today. He fought hard for our freedom and to be treated equally and I will always be grateful for that. He sacrificed so much for us to have a better life.
"He once said, ‘Without love, there is no reason to know anyone, for love will, in the end, connect us to our neighbors, our children, and our hearts!’ He proved that to be true. He will always be remembered for loving all and showing his fearlessness for humankind.
"Thank you for everything, Martin Luther King Jr. Your legacy will always be remembered because of your character.”
Brittany Packnett Cunningham
Activist, Educator, and Writer
“The question most on my mind today is one Dr. King asked before his assassination in the form of his final book: ‘Where do we go from here?’ There is no other question from his vast legacy that is more relevant today. We have a choice before us, in an era of emboldened and prolific white supremacy and patriarchy: Who will we be? Will we give in to cynicism, hatred, and division? Or will we harness our power and inform it with love, and intentionally uproot systems that do not serve us all and replace them with justice? I believe there is only one choice to make. Where do we go from here? To freedom.”
Lawyer and Founder of Decarceration Collective
“We live in an era where criminal justice reform has become fashionable politics. I am not a criminal justice reform advocate, because I believe America can do better than reform. It is not progress simply to renovate the interior design of human cages, making their injustice slightly more bearable. The low bar of reform has never brought America through its darkest hour. The Civil War was not fought merely to reform slavery; it was a bloodly battle to abolish human bondage. Dr. King didn’t march merely to reform segregation; he marched — and ultimately died — to abolish it. As a human rights lawyer, my work is not merely to reform mass incarceration; it is to abolish the conditions that have encaged human beings unjustly, oppressively, and excessively. That is my contribution to the Dream."
"I've learned so much from the life and writings of Dr. King. What I admire most is how teachable he was. He wasn't stagnant in his ways nor his vision. As he understood the horrors of the system, his calls for justice became more incisive. His newfound insight would constantly inform his action. And as a result his vision became global and his focus became the most marginalized among us."
Political Strategist and Principal at the Black Futures Lab; Co-founder, #BlackLivesMatter
"Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was a man who, while iconic, was also incredibly human. He made mistakes, had missteps, changed his mind, and didn't always start on the right side of things. That's what made him a leader — his humanity and the ways in which he never stopped seeking the road to justice.
"King is deeply loved and admired today, but this wasn't the case when he was alive. Many people, both Black and white, thought that he was ‘too radical’ and was pushing things too far. Yet he kept going, knowing that the arc of history was bent towards justice. As we reflect on his legacy, let us not make him into a martyr who never made mistakes. His full and total humanity, commitment. dedication, and courage to attempt to make what was deemed impossible possible is what undergirds his legacy today."
Comedian, Actor, and Writer
“There are many facets of Dr. King's ideology that impact the way I think and feel about liberation and social justice. I often find myself meditating on one tenet or another based on where we find ourselves as a society at any given time. When Mike Brown was killed — along with the many subsequent killings of unarmed Black men — I felt strongly about Dr. King's message of riots being the language of the unheard because that is indeed how we felt. As those events lead to larger discussions about race, they exposed many of the modern-day white moderate ‘stumbling blocks’ King spoke of then, who are still now more devoted to order than justice. But today, when I find myself staring at a nation and a world where wealth inequality widens at a rapid pace and people feel a need to rob pharmacies to aid sick children because of a broken healthcare system, while billionaires evade taxes at all costs, it is my hope that people who watch basic needs escape their grasp will finally say, “Enough is enough.” The language of the unheard will echo loudly throughout the streets of America until real change happens.”
Actor, Grey’s Anatomy
“When, as a child, I learned of Dr. King’s Dream, I did not fully appreciate the audacity of such a revolutionary notion. And it wasn’t until years later that the idea that the fight for freedom — the organizing, the boycotts, the marches, the arrests and violence at the hands of police and ordinary citizens — didn’t just end with the victories of desegregation and the Civil Rights Act, but that it is ongoing. When I reached voting age and cast my ballot for the first time, I understood the profound responsibility to continue the legacy by using that privilege, that power to enact change. In honor of Dr. King’s birthday, I challenge everyone to remember the high cost that was paid to achieve the right to vote, and how powerful it must be if so many forces are at work to suppress it. I challenge you to consider that your vote can change the course of history, and to exercise it at every available opportunity.”