Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

What can the rest of the world take away from the US celebration of MLK?

Martin Luther King jr MLK day

Martin Luther King III and family members at a demonstration for voting rights ahead of MLK Day. Image: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Today’s MLK day holiday in the US commemorates his life and legacy.
  • This year’s remembrance comes as aspects of that legacy are under threat.
  • The values he fought and died for are widely shared around the world.

Occasionally, I hear from people here in Europe that America’s issues with systemic racism are really that country’s alone.

But the history informing these issues, in particular the role of Martin Luther King, Jr., carries meaning for anyone who values basic human decency.

Today’s US holiday celebrating MLK comes at a time when some of his accomplishments are under threat, and his legacy is in dispute.

Many people seem to want the honoring of his work limited to sharing feel-good quotes on social media, and they tend to mischaracterize him as a passive sage. But that ignores the fact that a popular store of quotes wouldn’t exist at all if he and his allies hadn’t succeeded in eliciting the violent reaction of white bigots he rightfully castigated.

It’s maybe more important than ever to retain a clear window into this past, to inform the future. The voting rights Dr. King engaged in militant nonviolent direct action to help secure for people of color in the US are now under threat, for example – reflecting a trend in other parts of world where democracy is giving way to authoritarianism.

Efforts to educate young people about Martin Luther King’s struggles are also being imperiled, in ways that smack of the whitewashing of history that occurs in many countries to avoid uncomfortable details.

Not long after Tennessee banned the teaching of “critical race theory” last year, a complaint was filed with the state’s department of education objecting to classroom texts including a retelling of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

Interpreting MLK's legacy and impact

The group that filed the complaint in Tennessee suggested Dr. King would’ve supported its effort. “Targeting elementary age children with daily lessons on fighting past injustices as if they were occurring in present day,” it argued, “is an affront to the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Misinterpretations of his life’s work have spurred family members to chime in. Dr. King's teenage granddaughter recently addressed the ways he is (or is not) discussed now. “All kids and all adults,” she said, really need to “take some time and learn about the movement.”

That movement was propelled by Martin Luther King’s drive and fearlessness, and it helped point the US in a better direction. He stood behind President Lyndon Johnson during the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the brutality endured by his allies stirred Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – even as the FBI was steadily feeding criticisms of him to the president.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson
Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson Image: Yoichi Okamoto, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. King also focused on economic justice in ways that resonate globally. When his life drew to a tragic close in Memphis in 1968, he was in that city to help fight for the rights of striking sanitation workers.

According to the split labor market theory, the exploitation of Black sanitation workers in Memphis was only serving to worsen tensions with their white peers – who were slightly less underpaid and mistreated. It’s a phenomenon that’s cropped up everywhere from Japan to the Palestinian Territories, and is yet another bridge between Martin Luther King’s work in the US and the outside world.

More MLK Day reading about his legacy

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • In an essay occasioned by a Berlin jazz festival held in the depths of the Cold War, Dr. King made the point that the joyful, contemplative, and moving music was also a powerful tool in the fight for civil rights. (JSTOR Daily)
  • This author used a Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative lecture to offer practical antiracism strategies, like questioning the “assumptions born of years of retelling the same old stories of supposed white male heroism.” (Cornell University)
  • According to this piece, the call from conservatives in times of racial distress to consider “What would Martin Luther King do?” is as unauthentic and uninspiring as it is ambiguous – and that’s the point. (Christian Science Monitor)
  • An illustration of a society coming to terms with what Martin Luther King represented: according to this piece, two days after he was arrested in Florida for ordering food in a “whites-only” motel he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at Yale. (Yale University News)
  • Amid worrying threats to voting rights and civic participation in a number of places including the US, that country’s recent “Summit for Democracy” fell short in a number of ways, according to this piece. (The Diplomat)
  • Among the debates unfolding over what kind of democracy America is, according to this analysis, is one over whose vote counts and what the core problem is – expanding diversity, or a lack of inclusion. (LSE)
  • According to this article, places with majority-white populations like North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand will be majority mixed-race within a century or so, raising the question: what will the consequences be? (SpringerOpen)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Systemic Racism, Human Rights and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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