“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
— Martin Luther King Jr., “Strength to Love,” 1963.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is canonized in American culture by his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. In the years since his passing, the shape of his legacy has been molded into a comfortable, peaceful form. But what has been cut away are the elements of his work that challenged the American status quo at large. His words weren’t always so easy to swallow, and in his lifetime he wasn’t so wholly beloved.
Public support for Dr. King began to wane as his later work centered workers’ rights, criticized U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and called for an end to poverty. He defined steps for a universal middle-class income in his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” His last speech was given in support of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. Dr. King had plans for another march on Washington, this time in the name of economic change. However, he was assassinated a month before it began.
But the fight didn’t stop there. Coretta Scott King led the march known as The Poor People’s Campaign, just a single emblem of the breadth of her leadership. Another shortcoming of our nation’s memory of Dr. Martin Luther King’s work is the near erasure of the women deeply embedded in the successes of the 1960’s civil rights movement.
We can not celebrate Dr. King’s influence and achievements without also celebrating his wife Coretta. “I am an activist,” Coretta Scott King said. “I didn’t just emerge after Martin died—I was always there and involved.” She gave musical and poetic performances as fundraisers for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), where Dr. King served as president. Without her support and the work of numerous women, the Montgomery Bus Boycott might not have occurred — which, by the way, Jo Ann Robinson, president of The Women’s Political Council of Montgomery initiated. Parks was an activist long before and after she became known for holding her seat. Ella Baker helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where Diane Nash continued the Freedom Rides (which included many women activists) that led to legislation banning segregation on interstate buses. These are just a handful of contributions.
Coretta Scott King spoke against the Vietnam War in 1965 at Madison Square Garden, years before Dr. King did. After his death, she spoke at peace rallies and touted nonviolence and economic justice as a leader in numerous international missions, serving as a delegate for the Women’s Strike For Peace at a nuclear disarmament conference in Geneva, among many other initiatives. She supported gay and lesbian rights in the 90s and led the campaign for memorializing Dr. King in a national holiday.
As we honor the King family this week, it’s important to note the demands of MLK’s most famous work, including the “I Have a Dream,” speech are largely unmet. Today, countless grassroots organizations are still working to support communities of color in gaining equal access to voting rights, housing, economic opportunity, and adequate healthcare.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s true legacy is much more intersectional than the mainstream memorialization gives him credit for — his was a fight for racial justice, economic justice, and labor justice. He questioned our allegiance to militarism, questioned the impacts of capitalism on the nation’s people, and was propelled by, and today lives on through, the work of our grantee partners and thousands of women-led movements.