Why do we forget what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for? In life, he was resented. In 1968 — the year of his death — nearly three-quarters of the American public disapproved of him. To the vast majority of white people, he was radical, disruptive and dangerous. To his peers, he was too passive, too patient. Some younger Black activists thought of his nonviolent approach as ineffective and adopted more extreme measures, mocking King all the while.
In the 54 years since King’s assassination, our glasses have become rosy to the point of opacity. King was an iconic civil rights leader who advocated peaceful protests — but he was also a radical changemaker who elicited widespread controversy in his day. Instead of accepting the version of King’s character taught in kindergarten classrooms, we should be impassioned by his legacy. In the wake of this holiday, remembrance is only one part of the attitude we should adopt in order to further those ideals of change in spite of vehement resistance.
So what should Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy mean today?
When asked about the legacy of King, Anthony Fosu ’24, commented on the importance of dedication.
“The work of justice, whether you mean for it to be making things fair for everyone, or just making things more equitable, that actually means addressing institutional wrongs,” Fosu said. “There’s so much work to be done.”
As a guide for present-day steps toward achieving equity, it is important to know what King aimed for — beyond the dream that he spoke of at the 1963 March on Washington. He was informed by Southern Christian principles, which is evident in his attitude of nonviolence. He was a preacher just as much as he was an activist. As such, he prioritized better opportunities for the Black community and dedicated himself to the socioeconomic elevation of marginalized people everywhere. King’s work repeatedly circled back to unionization and securing protective rights for Black workers.
He was a powerful orator and an important figurehead, but he wanted to be known as “drum major for justice.” Beyond the Alabama Bus Boycotts and the Poor People’s Campaign at the beginning and end of his career, he initiated very few events of the Civil Rights Movement between 1955 and 1968. Instead, he offered his leadership and charisma to propel these efforts toward greater heights. He hoped to be a force of inspiration, an idea under which people could come together and have the conversations necessary to change the discrepancies in our ways of life.
One such conversation happened under the roof of the Shabazz Center last Monday night.
Students and community members alike gathered on the lawn of Dartmouth Hall for a vigil in honor of King, hosted by the The Theta Zeta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.. The crowd then made their way to Shabazz in a fluid wave through candlelight. The procession was humble, but powerful — representative of those who are quietly, but constantly committed to the cause of improving opportunities for people of color universally.
The main room, covered wall-to-wall with mural panels depicting the life and legacy of Malcom X, was filled with the spirit of resistance and refusal, the same attitude that Martin Luther King Jr. communicated in his words and actions — the same attitude that is consistently met with backlash and resentment.
Of the 70 or so students and community members in attendance at the vigil, a vast majority were already involved with or interested in racial equity work and similar issues that intersect with it, such as gender equality or LGBTQ+ rights. That is to say, the crowd that gathered to observe MLK Day were people who have already taken steps to improve the conditions that afflict marginalized communities.
As we came together to create a safe space under the Shabazz roof, Dartmouth cameras rolled in the back of the room. Several members of the audience drew attention to their presence, and I similarly felt disappointed at the idea of our vulnerability being broadcasted. Why is it that Dartmouth feels the need to document the conversations that we must carry with us year-round, if the College is not similarly burdened by our struggle?
It is easy to live under the false assumption that racial equality has been achieved, when the invisibility of modern oppressive forces is what allows inequality to persist. We cannot and should not forget about systems that prevent people of color from advancing in society, despite many of the overt roadblocks being removed. We should not simply do what is easy, because those impacted by these issues do not have the same luxury.
Since Jan. 14, the College has hosted a series of events dedicated to promoting conversations about Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy: film screenings, keynote speakers and statue unveilings. Through these events, we’re encouraged to reflect on the past and how far we have come in our battle for racial equality. And yet, our focus in the present is a bit harder to track. This wasn’t a deliberate exclusion on the part of anyone in particular, but it does speak to what we expect of ourselves and one another. Or rather, how little we expect.
I asked students who were present at Monday night’s vigil what it means to practice observance of MLK Day. To Fosu, the holiday is an opportunity to look at ourselves more critically.
“This day means more than just watching the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” he said. “For me, that poses this unique challenge: that everything I do is meant to serve my community and work towards justice and disrupt injustice wherever it exists in an institution, like the one we’re at right now, or in other spaces.”
Similarly, Jabari Johnson ’26 suggested ways that the larger Dartmouth community might support its students.
“No one’s perfect,” Johnson, who plays on the football team, said, referring to lower involvement levels in social justice work on campus. “I think the football community is there for us. [Head coach Buddy] Teevens is really great at encouraging us to talk about events where the team can come out and show support. They’re there for us in that way.”
While there are some spaces on campus to elevate and support marginalized communities, there is still much work to be done for an equitable future.
We can start by listening. By keeping an eye or ear out for opportunities to show up and learn more about the inequity most prevalent in our society today, we can be better informed about opportunities to support other communities. Talk to friends, and take them with you to club meetings or special events, like the conversation with keynote speaker Tarana Burke — the founder of the “Me Too” movement.
Most importantly, be anything but passive. King would have wanted it that way.