In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we asked black activists and advocates around the city: How does Dr. King’s legacy inspire your work today?
King the anti-gun-violence advocate
As an anti-gun-violence advocate, I think often of this quote from Dr. King: “By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”
It is tragic and ironic that Dr. King — who spoke so eloquently against America’s glorification of guns — was struck down by a firearm, as were Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and other great civil rights leaders.
In Philadelphia, 80 percent of gun victims are young African American men — it’s the leading cause of death in their age group. We’ll never know how many potential civil rights leaders were lost in the prime of their lives. We hemorrhage human potential with each bullet fired.
My work is motivated not just by Dr. King’s conviction that none of us should have to worry about dying by a gun but by his example of loving fearlessly — so that we never find ourselves on either side of a gun. — Scott Charles, anti-gun-violence advocate and trauma outreach coordinator, Temple University Hospital
King the radical
When I was growing up, my dad would play a record of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speeches to mark the holiday. As an adult I continue my dad’s tradition, playing Dr. King’s speeches throughout the week of the holiday. I find so much inspiration in the radical King, the King who fearlessly named the three evils of American society: capitalism, militarism, and racism. The King who was seen as such a threat to the state and the status quo that he was assassinated.
In my day-to-day organizing work with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, I draw strength from King’s exhortation to be tireless and persistent in his speech “The Other America.” I use a quote from the speech as my regular email signature so that I read it several times a day every day.
In my heart, I am an abolitionist who would like to see a world where we abolish prisons and create new systems that heal and restore our community. Taking on the prison industrial complex is such a gargantuan task. In 2018, 2.3 million people were jailed in local, state, and federal prisons including the growing numbers held in immigrant detention. But I know there is work I can do by working to end cash bail in Philadelphia. — Candace McKinley, core organizer at Philadelphia Community Bail Fund
King the futurist
Martin Luther King is most often remembered as a visionary Civil Rights leader, but rarely recognized as a futurist. As a housing attorney and sci-fi writer who merges those two worlds, I admire how he used the language and imagery of dreams and prophecies, apocalypses and utopias to show futurist visions to oppressed black communities.
One of his most powerful, yet underquoted criticisms of America in the 1960s was about the race to place man on the moon, one of the ultimate milestones of progress of Western society and a symbol of humankind’s arrival into “the future.” In a 1966 speech he said: “There is a striking absurdity in committing billions to reach the moon where no people live … while the densely populated slums are allocated minuscule appropriations.”
MLK could not see progress where black people had not yet achieved racial justice and social equity. More than 50 years later, we still cannot claim true progress in these areas. His uncompromising refusal to concede a future where black communities are still marginalized, oppressed, and disproportionately denied equitable access to safe, healthy, and happy lives is a view that inspires my work. — Rasheedah Phillips, managing attorney, Landlord-Tenant Housing Unit, Community Legal Services, and cocreator, The Afrofuturist Affair and Black Quantum Futurism
King the liberator
I am part of an incredible network of people who are committed to advancing equity, collaboration, and creative solutions to make this city, and world, better for everyone. Through this work I have come to understand that health is influenced by many things — none of which operate in isolation from each other. King understood then, just as it is now, that the struggles people faced were tied to the “triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism.” And, because he dreamed with such a disruptive and revolutionary spirit, at the time of his death, most Americans did not have a favorable opinion of him.
King said: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” Given King’s legacy, I would dare not compare my efforts to his. But at the root of it, I believe we share a deep love for people, a vision for a better world, and a desire to disrupt harmful systems so everyone is truly able to live their best lives. I simply want to use my position, whatever that may be, to benefit people and their liberation. — Dwayne Wharton, director of external affairs for the Food Trust and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health leader
King the labor advocate
Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech tends to be admired across race and class lines. What King knew then — and what is still relevant now — is that America has only been great for those not marginalized by centuries of oppression.
In my work with the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, I feel inspired by a speech King gave in Memphis on Feb. 12, 1968. In his address in support of striking sanitation workers, King said: “You are demanding that this city respects the dignity of labor.” To me, this highlights a powerful counternarrative to the oft-remembered kumbaya King, who said, “I have a dream.” In Memphis, he delivered a searing critique about economic oppression.
How might King’s demand that all labor has dignity extend to our communities that engage in sex work? What would that mean for our city in terms of decriminalization and seeing the humanity in an often overlooked form of labor?
This MLK Day, I dream of a Philadelphia and a nation that doesn’t perform unity but that actually takes a bold stand for ALL labor. — Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad, cofounder and core organizer of the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative
King the servant leader
Martin Luther King Jr. is by far one of the major inspirations for my activism and service, as he was the embodiment of a servant leader, working to put the needs of all others above his own.
King’s commitment to economic justice is something that has had lasting impact on me. He recognized the need to shift the movement from racial justice to human rights, and advocate for jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults was revolutionary for his time.
As an advocate in the city of Philadelphia, I understand the need to have economic justice as part of my work, as the city’s poverty rate is 26 percent, and nearly half of the city’s 400,000 poor residents are living in deep poverty.
When looking at cycles of violence in Philadelphia, a common factor is always economic opportunity. The communities I often advocate for are negatively positioned by society at birth based on their income and/or zip code. I often reflect on Dr. King’s quote from his Nobel Peace Prize address: “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.” I am reminded daily that there is still work to be done. — Lauren Footman, community activist and organizer
King the policy crusader
Dr. King’s last book published before his death, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”, was a real game changer for me. I read it at 25 and was stunned to experience a MLK foreign to every conception of him I had encountered since grade school — a man who was more of an agitator than a pure pacifist.
Every year around his holiday, I ground myself in passages of that book and Dr. King’s final speech in Tennessee. They are ready reminders that he was not assassinated for marches and voting rights; he was murdered for linking the plights of poor people across the country, highlighting the choke holds that marginalized black, brown, and migrant workers and their families. MLK challenged the economic violence supported through policy and cultural practices: the exclusion of black Americans from ownership or protection of assets (think redlining, barring services to certain neighborhoods), failing schools, over-policing, mass incarceration, underemployment, and infrastructural decay that still plagues too many neighborhoods. The maps published over the last few years that highlight life expectancy discrepancies based on zip codes overlay closely with maps of redlining. The question we must raise, in honor of MLK, is whether this pattern is coincidental or planned.
We must undo the mechanisms that create harmful social infrastructure — while still making the time for joy. It is the resilience of the neighborhoods and families impacted by these issues that allows us the opportunity to right what’s wrong, honor what’s working, and design new paths. That is worth celebrating. — Michael O’Bryan, director of Youth and Young Adult Programs and Innovation Fellow, Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation