If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he might be at the U.S.-Mexico border. Or the civil rights icon might be urging politicians to reopen the federal government.
“I think he would be just as active today as he was when he was assassinated,” said Stephany Rose Spaulding, an associate professor of women’s and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who ran against Republican Doug Lamborn last year for the state’s 5th Congressional District seat.
“He would see the erosion of our democracy and the tremendous inequities and would fight against it.”
In 2019, King would view “families being separated by immigration policy” as a civil rights issue, said Rosemary Lytle, president of the Colorado, Wyoming and Montana chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And King would be concerned about “the retrenchment of many segments of our society in terms of economic justice,” she said.
“I think he would be disappointed that we have not gone further, that more progress hasn’t been made. But I don’t think Dr. King would have scrolled through his Twitter feed or his Facebook timeline and bemoaned what has happened. I think Dr. King would maybe be equipping the new freedom fighters with the ideals and modeling the energy that it takes to continue that kind of fight.”
In the years before King’s assassination in 1968, many Americans disapproved of his views or perceived him as too radical, Lytle said.
“We have to remember that it was not always this love of a person who’s mostly associated with ‘I have a dream,’” Lytle said.
“We find increasingly that the heart of exploring Dr. King’s legacy — it’s not always a kumbaya moment, if you will. It’s a stretch and it’s a pull and it’s disruption and it’s fighting oppression. It’s kneeling in the face of power, and it’s taking power to task. That’s what his life was really about.”
Michael Sawyer, an assistant professor at Colorado College, said he worries that “our society has watered down King’s message to make it palatable to a broader audience.”
“There’s just this desire to kind of render him inert in a particular kind of way and make it so people don’t have to reflect on their own problematic behaviors.”
Martin Luther King Jr. Day, observed Monday, is an opportunity for reflection, said Sawyer, who teaches in the college’s English department and Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies program.
King’s work was “a radical questioning of societal order to demand a higher level of accountability,” Sawyer said. “That’s the primary point of it, right? To force everybody to reflect on what it is that they’re doing in their day-to-day lives to contribute to the progress of society towards what he established was the arc towards justice.”
Lytle said that each year around this time, she finds herself struck by a different aspect of King’s work.
“King’s legacy, being so rich and multilayered, is still taking shape,” she said. “Each time you look at a piece of it, it’s different.”
Tony Exum Sr., a three-term state representative, said he believes more education is needed around King’s work and the civil rights challenges African-Americans have faced.
Exum recalled that when he spoke to a fourth-grade class few years ago, an African-American student was surprised and confused to learn it was once illegal or prohibitively difficult for blacks to vote.
“I’m appreciative of the celebration, but I was talking to somebody last year, I said, ‘Has it just become another holiday to be off from work?’ I don’t believe that it has, but we have to be able to share that to the younger generation that didn’t know anything about Dr. King and voting rights.”
While great strides have been made for the African-American community in the half-century since King’s death, barriers remain, Spaulding said.
“On the surface, yes, a lot is easier today than what it looked like in the ’50s and the ’60s in the sense that people, en masse, are not facing the kind of violence that was very much prevalent across the country, even here in Colorado Springs, due to pronounced and direct institutionalized segregation and racism,” Spaulding said.
“But there’s still such a long way to go, and in some ways because on the surface it’s not as blatantly violent ... the nuances around institutionalized racism are harder to overcome because people, in their political correctness, want to believe that we are past that point, but in reality, we are not.”
All you have to do is “look at the positions of power in our country, in our state. We are just celebrating the first African-American to go to Congress from the state of Colorado in Joe Neguse, right? We’re still celebrating the first Latina who was the speaker of the House here in Colorado. We’re still celebrating the first gay governor of Colorado. Those markers let us know we have not yet arrived. But things are certainly better, and I would be remiss to say otherwise.”
Americans need to address the economic disparity between blacks and whites and the disproportionate number of incarcerated black men, Exum said. And, although many cities are getting cleaner, egregious instances of pollution tend to affect predominately black neighborhoods, such as the Flint, Mich., water crisis, he said.
Some societal injustices are more likely to affect black women, “who are particularly susceptible to sexual violence and particularly susceptible to disenfranchisement in the workplace,” Sawyer said.
Some racial disparities have lessened, Exum said. The black community has made progress on voter turnout and high school graduation rates, and an increasing number of blacks hold elected office.
“And now it’s possible to be president, regardless of what color you are, especially with the legacy of President (Barack) Obama, which I didn’t think I would see in my lifetime,” Exum said.
Spaulding says she remembers when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first observed in 1986. She was in the first grade.
“It reminded me, growing up in Chicago, that black lives do matter and the work of civil rights was a work that was continuous but also a legacy for our country,” she said.