Seeking Real Racial Justice: How Society Misunderstands Dr. King’s Ideas

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressing crowd of demonstrators outside the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963. Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection—Getty Images

By Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

The Rev. Dr. King’s ideals and teachings are desperately needed in our society like never before. However, many people in the US do not really want change in the way Dr. King advocated. He would not have subscribed to the passive version of so called racial harmony that is espoused today in the media and the public sphere. He would not have signed on to a call for unity that does not name and challenge the systemic and institutional racism that is still entrenched in America; a deep seated racism that persists even over fifty years after King’s death. Likewise people today would have been uncomfortable with Dr. King’s proposed Poor People’s Campaign that calls for economic justice and equality, even going beyond conversations about racial equality. King was assassinated the same year he organized the Poor People’s Campaign march, Ralph David Abernathy had to carry out the march, as a result of King’s death. To further highlight the complexity of King’s work it is fitting to repost an article we did a few years ago.

On the Lower East Side, three young men carry posters as they walk along Madison Street (past Gouverneur St) during the Poor People’s Campaign 1968 march, New York, New York, May 11, 1968. (Photo by Bev Grant/Getty Images)

Originally posted on January 24, 2019

Martin’s Ideas: A More In-Depth Look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

With the celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and work it is a good time to take a deeper look at his legacy. The celebrations of Martin Luther King usually consist of an emphasis on his most popular speeches, his marches and also his death. Although, popular tributes to King are of the utmost importance, they fail to take an in-depth analysis of his more complex and sophisticated ideas. When one delves deep into the works of Dr. Martin Luther King, one discovers that he talked a lot about many democratic principles such as justice, freedom, equality, fairness and creating what he called the “beloved community.” These principles can apply to societal challenges today. This article offers resources that can help students, the general public, teachers and scholars take a more in-depth look at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It provides some information and resources outside of mainstream portrayals of Dr. King that may be useful tools in addressing some of the social and political challenges in which we find ourselves today.

King Was Not Always Popular
Dr. King was vilified, harassed and eventually murdered because his ideas challenged the status quo and the established order. Ironically, many people that celebrate Dr. King in our time would not have supported him when he was living and would have considered him to be a radical. Martin was a man of great integrity, who was very kind and selfless as well. However, his unpopularity came because he courageously spoke out and pushed against the establishment. Stephen and Paul Kendrick in an April 3, 2018 Washington Post Op Ed article wrote “In our long effort to moderate King, to make him safe, we have forgotten how unpopular he had become by 1968. In his last years, King was harassed, dismissed and often saddened. These years after Selma are often dealt with in a narrative rush toward martyrdom, highlighting his weariness. But what is missed is his resilience under despair. It was when his plans faltered under duress that something essential emerged. The final period of King’s life may be exactly what we need to recall, bringing lessons from that time of turmoil to our time of disillusion.” Right up unto the day that he died, King had many critics, but after he was killed people celebrated and praised him. Perhaps this is because many people are not always willing to make sacrifices, but when the time comes for accolades there are no shortage of supporters.

Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Addresses Some of His Critics
Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail is a good source too add to the discussion about the many critics he had. Martin chose to go into the ministry after first considering being a medical doctor or lawyer. In his writings, he states that the church and his role as a minister gave him the best resources and platform to answer “an inner urge to serve humanity.” Thus, the opinions of his fellow ministers (He directs the letter to his “fellow clergymen”) was very important to him. Apparently in King’s day many of the ministers were very critical of the work he had been doing. He starts off stating “while confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities unwise and untimely.” He goes on to say that “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” As evident in this quote, one can clearly note that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not always viewed as the kindly, soft, superhero in which society views him today. As the letter also indicates, some of the disapproval came from his colleagues in the ministry. To be fair, Martin enjoyed immense popularity among many people, but he had just as many enemies as he had admirers, if not more.
Letter from Birmingham Jail

Courtesy Everett Collection

King’s Non-Violence Stance Was Not Always so Certain
One of the principles King is most noted for is his practice of nonviolent resistance. However, it is not common knowledge that he did not start out this way early in his work. But, through much of the literature he read and those who mentored him he moved in that direction. His advisers showed him an alternative to violence and how nonviolent resistance can act as a powerful tool. The goal was not to humiliate one’s opponent but to win them over as a friend. He took to the idea also because of his religious beliefs as a Christian and a Baptist minister. Two of King’s primary advisers were Christian theologian Howard Thurman and white activists Harris Wofford, from the Christian pacifist tradition. Another one of King’s key mentors was veteran African-American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who helped coach and train him in strategies of non-violent resistance. Both Wofford and Rustin both studied Gandhi’s teachings and exposed King to his philosophies. In King’s early activism in the 1950’s he rarely used the term “nonviolence” and knew very little about Gandhi’s work. Surprisingly, King did not always subscribe to nonviolence and early on believed in self-defense. King had even purchased firearms to protect his family from attackers in his home. Later in his activism he strongly and publicly denounced the personal use of guns, however Dr. King always had  conflicted views of self-defense. Even though he spoke out against self-defense, many of his associates carried fire arms to protect him. So perhaps he was influenced by the realities of his day and black activist who unapologetically advocated for the use of violence if necessary.
Dr. King’s Nonviolence Stance

Deeper Concepts in King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” Often Missed
In the media and at MLK events when one hears excerpts from King’s most popular speech entitled “I have a Dream”, it is heard starting from the climax toward the end of the speech that repeats “I have a dream.” We hear King begin this segment with the lines “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” Even though these words are electrifying and speak of high moral ideals, people miss equally deep and powerful concepts discussed earlier in the speech. For example, in an earlier part of the speech Dr. King states: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” Even though these words were spoken in 1963 it applies to our time period as if it were written for today. There has long been the popular notion that America has moved well past the injustices and racial prejudices of the Civil Rights era, however with the rise of hate groups, white supremacy and racial rhetoric in our society, it seems that the nation has regressed and given way again to racial divisions on a wide scale. Indeed, the line “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood” can be applied to today as our country becomes more and more divided along racial lines, Martin’s “I Have a Dream Speech” speech reminds us that racial injustice can act as quicksand that can impede progress in our land; it can cause us to be stuck. But King’s legacy reminds us to lift up our nation  toward a more just society.
Original “I Have Dream” Transcript

Discussion Questions:
• What progress has been made in terms of racial reconciliation sense Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time?
• How much progress have we really made in terms of race relations and equality since the Civil Rights era?
• Are there incidents, events or attitudes in today’s society that remind us of the times in which Dr. King lived? If so, what are they?
• Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked a good deal about race, but he also talked about economic injustice, do you think we have made much progress in terms of economic equality?
• If Martin were living today how would he feel about society? What kinds of things might he be saying?
Below are a number of lesson plans and resources for teachers and students that offer a more in-depth study of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lesson Plans
Classroom Resources for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Grades K-5
Classroom Resources for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Grades 6-8
Classroom Resources for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Grades 9-12
Lesson Plans & Teacher Guides

Sermons and Speech Transcripts
The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” Sermon Delivered at Friendship Baptist Church
“Loving Your Enemies,” Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
“But If Not” – A Sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Why Jesus Called A Man A Fool” (Sermon) Martin Luther King Jr.

Sermons/Speeches- Audiovisual Resources
Our God Is Marching On! (March 25, 1965)
MLK: Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence
Martin Luther King, Jr., American Dream
Martin Luther King – But if Not – Full Sermon
Martin Luther King’s Last Speech: “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop”
Conclusion of “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” Speech
Martin Luther King, Jr., “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?”
Martin Luther King “If I had Sneezed”

Other Audiovisual Resources
Mahalia Jackson singing & Martin Luther King Jr preaching at Church
Martin Luther King, Jr. – Minister & Civil Rights Activist 

The Greatest MLK Speeches You Never Heard
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed by a deranged woman. At 29, he almost died.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King Is Slain in Memphis; A White Is Suspected; Johnson Urges Calm


  1. I couldn’t agree more with the idea that in school, while we do and should learn about Martin Luther King Jr., we do not really analyze the complexity of his ideas. We get a vague sense of who he was and what he stood for based on his most famous accomplishments. Because we only look at a mainstream version of Martin, many people (myself included), don’t know that he wasn’t the revered leader that we remember him as today. This isn’t to say that he wasn’t popular or well respected by his community, but that many people fail to understand how much adversity he was facing. His fight was tiring, misunderstood and villainized.

    One thing I learned from this article is that King actually did waver on his stance on non-violence. I believe this fact humanizes him a bit, because I personally feel like we were taught that King kind of had an “above it all” attitude when it came to violence. It was and honestly still is very hard for me to understand how someone could restrain from violence in the form of self defense. I agree with starting out non-violent, but when someone goes through such great lengths to harm and dehumanize you, not even caring if your life is taken in the process, I don’t see how non-violence is wise or noble. I like learning things about historical figures that help us relate to them.

  2. People often gloss over Dr. King’s radicalism and portray him as a passive centrist. Some even intentionally misrepresent his cause in an attempt to invalidate modern day anti-racist activism. Many people who misrepresent King by focusing on just a few line from his dream speech are the same people we see on FOX news who are fervently opposed to BLM or the thought of critical race theory being taught in school.

  3. I think that people forget that Dr. King was radical in his day. He wasn’t Malcolm X, but he had his own brand of fire, and what he was striving for has not, in many ways, panned out. The “inspirational” quotes we see from Dr. King are often misunderstood by the person posting them; the intent with which Dr. King spoke matters.

  4. I liked this article because many of the words that Dr. Kings spoke we can still relate to today. There are still racism, and hate groups in America today. I also liked how the article highlighted how Dr.King did not just advocate for racial equality. 

  5. In middle school I had an assignment where I had to break down the King’s speech. This article felt similar, only more professional. I loved this article because of its unbiased view and different way of writing the article

  6. I really enjoyed this article. More recently I have heard things going around about the misrepresentation and misunderstanding of Martin Luther King Jr. and his ideals but not too many specifics. It was interesting to learn more about MLK and his beliefs, and to see that he was an advocate for many things, not just racial equality. I also enjoyed how the article highlighted his resilience under despair and portrayed MLK’s enormous strength/persistence.

  7. I found it very inspiring when Martin Luther King Jr spoke on racial relations and economic justice. I believe that things have changed since then, in some ways for the better, but I honestly don’t think society grew or even evolved as most think we have. Yes a lot has changed since MLK’s time, but I do not think our economic equality has grown as much as people think it has.

  8. Martin Luther King’s nonviolence position was not always there, which was intriguing to watch. King was a person who aided our country in taking a significant stride in the right path. as others have stated commenting on this article An event in today’s society that can be connected to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd.

  9. Martin Luther King Jr was courageous to speak on racial relations and economic justice, and to be frank I do not know that a whole lot has changed today on both ends of the spectrum. Economic equality is far from progress and racial relations is still very much relevant in today’s society. I think MLK would be disappointed to see where we are today, some days it feels like we are moving backwards.

  10. This reminds me of the BLM movement and is very similar in ideologies. MLK was pushing for equality and peace between people of all races explaining that they are all equal and each are “God’s children”. Hoping that his dream of equality will come true, we are unfortunately still facing these issues today, BLM is fighting for racial equality as well but so many people have opinions rooted so deeply in racism and hatred. I hate to see that we do not live in the type of world where one of any race can feel confident just ‘being’. As King has explained and showed, “nonviolent resistance can act as a powerful tool” I too, believe this is true and hope to one day see a difference in our communities through organizations such as Black Lives Matter and to hopefully fulfill Kings dream.

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