1/22/2014, 3 p.m.
What we see in almost all the remembrances and observances is an image and portrayal of King as the apostle ...
Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy listen to speakers during a Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting. The embattled civil rights organization is now led by King's daughter Bernice King. (Courtesy photo)

At least once every year, this nation pauses to rightfully honor the memory and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

His dedication to human rights and his desire to unshackle African Americans from the bondage of Jim Crow, racism, discrimination and other vagaries of white racial dominance marked him as one of the most forceful and persuasive activists to stride across the world stage in the 20th century.

In his short 39 years, King changed a country and inspired people around the world using Gandhian principles of non-violence in the face of intense racial aggression from people seeking to prop up a dying system.

What we see in almost all the remembrances and observances is an image and portrayal of King as the apostle of peace and not much more. When South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela died on Dec. 5 last year, a number of people, including TransAfrica President Nicole Lee called on admirers not to allow anyone to water down his legacy and only focus on the icon as a conciliator.

As she and other organizers planned the D.C. memorial service for Mandela, Lee said, she was struck by one reality: “We were trying to package what could never fit in a box. No one title could completely encapsulate Mandela. He was a freedom fighter, a visionary, a change agent ... a dissident, a contrary-spirit, a misfit … It is too tempting, especially as we are grieving his passing, to make Mandela look like how we desire to see him. It is time to look at him for all he was.”

The same could be said for King. He was bigger than any label, more expansive than a name or descriptor. He was much more than a peacemaker. He was a man, who toward the end of his life was evolving, questioning the Vietnam War, speaking out against the classism and deep disparities between whites and other groups, and talking about the distribution of wealth in this country.

That scared people and powerful forces decided he needed to be removed.

If we choose to hold onto an image of King as safe, cuddly, and non-threatening, we dishonor his memory and the extreme sacrifice he made on our behalf. Prior to his death, King through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was preparing a Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. to call for economic justice and demand that the U.S. government begin to more forcefully address these and other concerns.

King still challenges us to fight against all the “isms,” including racism, sexism, and gender discrimination. Our work is cut out for us in a society where a disturbing and widening economic gap between rich and poor continues to broaden. Almost half of the United States is mired in poverty. American workers are engaged in an epic struggle to extract a decent wage from corporations. Cynical and callous politicians stay awake at night devising ways to subvert the democratic process and the constitutional right to vote. And too many of our children have been tossed into the assembly line that is the school-to-prison pipeline.

Our fight is ongoing. The problems we face aren’t going away.

As Lee so eloquently stated, we are called to continue (Mandela and King’s) fight against injustice and we are challenged to use our respective platforms to repudiate discrimination. We are summoned, she added, to partner with friends and unlikely allies to alter the trajectory of greed and gluttony that abandons the working poor.

Just suppose for one year, everyone who claims to be an admirer of Dr. King really decided to take his teachings to heart and act upon them? What would this city, our respective communities and this country look like?