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Honoring King’s legacy in today’s society


It’s been nearly 30 years since Congress designated Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an official day of service, encouraging all Americans to volunteer and serve others with open minds and open hearts.

Perhaps now more than ever, this annual celebration of King’s insightful leadership and contributions to civil rights presents a time for serious reflection.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history who teaches about civil rights and the Black Power Movement at Ohio State, said the challenges of 2020 set the stage to evaluate where we should direct energy and resources to help others.

“Over the years, the holiday has become increasingly viewed as a day off and one filled with shopping and sales,” he said. “In this moment, as 2021 begins and caps a year of social movement and a call for racial equality, there is a need to again align the day with King’s ideals.” 

According to Jeffries, this is evident not only in the social protests and social awareness activism of the past summer, but in the lives lost to COVID-19 and the desperate circumstances in which millions of Americans find themselves.

What does the MLK Day holiday mean to you?

I think it’s a time of reflection in terms of where we have been and how we have gotten to this point. King didn’t just die of old age; he was assassinated. People have made these sacrifices, King foremost among them at age 39.

And it’s a time of action. King was about sacrifice and service for others, and it was never about him. If we can take a little bit of that spirit with us into the holiday and afterward serving others, my community, my nation, my family and those I don’t know I think we are truly living out what King had envisioned. 

Are you hopeful that with the recent social activism we will see change?

I remain hopeful for meaningful change, but I am not particularly optimistic that we will see this happen in the immediate moment. It is always hard to put a time frame on it. I am hopeful because we have never seen this many people over the last year or so take to the streets and demand justice and racial equity. And we know there will always be people who are willing to sacrifice and fight to bring about a better democracy.

But I admit I am not particularly optimistic when you look at the millions of people who were willing to cast ballots for someone who was fully embracing racism and white supremacy and xenophobia. That means we have a long way to go in terms of bridging the divide and moving the nation forward to a more democratic place.

Can you point to specific areas that are going in the right direction?

Dialogue and conversation is an important starting point. Sometimes I like to think if I can just share more information and if people just knew more, then they would change their behavior and things would get better. The reality is, we know that truth in and of itself is not enough. We are living in a world where people deny reality in a heartbeat.    

Many are taking a moment to stop and listen and learn and pay attention to things they have ignored before. We have seen more of that, and that is important. That is where you have to begin with those who are willing to have an open mind. It also doesn’t take a lot of people to make a big difference. That’s one of the big lessons that comes out of the civil rights movement. Not everyone has to be on board. You can have tens of millions who are not, yet you can move things in the right direction.

We have a long way to go in terms of bridging the divide and moving the nation forward to a more democratic place.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Professor of history at Ohio State
What do you see as the next step?

The fact that people are having conversations and being introspective and reflective is a good first step. Now it becomes about applicability how we apply it to the world in which we live both at a personal individual level like how we change behavior in our own lives. Then we look to our spheres of influence beyond our personal lives in our work spaces and our play spaces and our school spaces. That’s where we have to begin to do work.

There are those who invoke King’s name in inappropriate ways, such as using his nonviolence perspective as a way of criticizing current social movements.

This has been true almost since the moment King died. You have those who use his name and his words actually against what he believed. There are those who hang their hat on King’s 1963 March on Washington speech in which he talked about color blindness and judging people on the content of their character.

But he also said America owes African Americans a check for reparations for past harms. And that check has come due. There is not just this fantastical vision about a color-blind society. If you want to create a society that is racially just, then you have to factor in race in those solutions.

In the corruption of King’s ideas whether it’s saying you want color blindness or equality you have to factor in race to get to a point that race is no longer a meaningful factor in determining people’s life outcomes.

But at the same time, you must protest. This is the beauty of King’s 1963 letter from Birmingham jail. He said civil disobedience is what we have to do to change society. We take to the streets and engage in civil disobedience and disruption and as John Lewis said we must get into good trouble.

It’s unfortunate people in many ways use his words against those who are fulfilling King’s vision, but that’s the way politics plays out sometimes.