Has History “Sanitized” King’s Words? Inside the Push to #ReclaimMLK Day

Organizers hope to connect today’s civil rights movements to those of the past with a week of demonstrations across the country leading up to Inauguration Day.
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Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which he delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

In his notable Letter From a Birmingham Jail, written in April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, in part:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; … and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

In the spirit of these words, Black activists around the country organized to rebrand the image and legacy of King, which they say has become “sanitized” by mainstream use of his less offensive and all-encompassing quotes. In January 2015, they renamed the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, observed the first Monday after King’s birthday (Jan. 15), #ReclaimMLK Day. That first observance followed months of demonstrations in the wake of the fatal shooting of an unarmed Black teenager by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in August 2014. Organizers consider #ReclaimMLK a summons to connect contemporary movements, like the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), to the civil rights and Black Power movements of the past, and to embrace the courage of today’s people of color, who are equally vocal and assertive in standing up to racism, bigotry, and xenophobia.

This year, M4BL, a coalition of more than 50 racial justice and civil and human rights organizations, has scheduled a week-long call to action: “RESIST & RECLAIM from MLK to Inauguration Day” that includes protests and demonstrations Monday, the official Martin Luther King Jr. Day, through Friday, the day Donald Trump is sworn into office. So far, organizers have confirmed activities in Atlanta; Memphis, Tennessee; Oakland, California; Philadelphia; Boston; and other cities around the country.

“The meaning of reclaiming MLK Day is also about reclaiming and de-sanitizing the legacy of the broader Black freedom movement of the 20th century in effort to make it intentional in our work now,” Asha Ransby-Sporn, national organizing chair of Black Youth Project 100, said on a Jan. 7 conference call with organizers and media. It’s especially important, she added, to promote reclaiming the narrative as Trump assumes office.

Each day will focus on a specific theme:

• Monday: the third annual #Reclaim MLK Day, when participants will take different public actions in their own communities, honoring King, while sharing success stories of ongoing local work that addresses specific problems in their cities, counties, and states;

• Tuesday: Nationwide actions will address Islamophobia and the violence Muslims experience on an interpersonal and structural level;

• Wednesday: Participants will engage in anti-deportation actions, as well as environmental defense actions;

• Thursday: Students will hold a nationwide walkout in response to the inauguration; other actions address gender justice and labor justice;

• Friday, Inauguration Day: M4BL is calling for mass mobilization to protest the inauguration of Trump. The group urges anyone who can travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in a protest there, while others can join in demonstrations in their respective cities.

“For us, the inauguration as well as #ReclaimMLK is a fierce urgency now,” April Goggans, Black Lives Matter-DC told listeners on the conference call. “We’re still combating police brutality and murder, but also now violent immigration raids and detention, super- and hyper-surveillance … And working in collaboration with our comrades, and Muslim, and undocumented and other communities, LGBTQ communities, and all those folks who we can no longer rely on the state to protect.”

In a follow-up interview with Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of BLM Network, Cullors discussed the significance of the week of action. “We see this as an opportunity to lift up work that’s [already] happening locally, but also to build the people power necessary to ensure that [among other goals] Trump is not reelected,” she said. “It’s absolutely necessary to build real political power right now, and align ourselves with different types of groups building in different types of ways.”

To find out about actions happening in your city, visit https://m4bl.net.