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The Words of Martin Luther King Jr. Reverberate in a Tumultuous Time

Historians in the News
tags: civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr.



He lived and died in a time of tumult and a racial awakening, so perhaps it is no surprise that the 35th national celebration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday has particular resonance amid one of the most traumatic seasons in memory: A raging pandemic. Protest and civil unrest after the killing of Black people by the police. A momentous election. And an insurrection.

Even the title of his final book — “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” — seems ripped from today’s headlines.

“I think it’s still an unanswered question,” said Clayborne Carson, a history professor at Stanford University, referring to the title of Dr. King’s book.

“I think the most important word in that question is ‘we’ — who are we, and until you figure that out, it’s very hard to tell where we are going,” said Dr. Carson, who is also the founder and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, which is publishing a collection of Dr. King’s papers.

Amid the change and upheaval, the words of Dr. King, both those celebrated and the less familiar, feel more urgent then perhaps ever before, both as a guide and a warning. From oft-quoted speeches to the words he never had a chance to deliver before his assassination, Dr. King talked about his vision of a just world, about the power of peaceful protests, and about disruption as the language of the unseen and the unheard.

We asked Dr. Carson and others from across the country to choose words from Dr. King and reflect on how they resonate today. Here’s what they had to say.

“Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”

— from the last speech given by Dr. King, on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, the day before he was assassinated.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, said Dr. King’s words spoke to the daunting challenge that civil rights leaders faced helping the poor and marginalized. He drew a parallel to today’s challenges of systemic racism, ecological devastation and a lack of access to health care.

The election of a Democratic president, he said, is no reason to slow down.

“It’s not enough to have an election and put new people into office,” Dr. Barber said. “We must push and continue to push for the kind of public policy that really establishes justice.”

Read entire article at New York Times

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