The Current

Much of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy distorted in modern times, says historian

Civil rights historian Nathan Connolly says our view of Martin Luther King Jr. is often over-simplified and creates a one-dimensional version of history. He calls for a deeper look into his legacy.

Nathan Connolly argues we should look beyond the "I Have A Dream speech" and learn more about his wider legacy

Historian Nathan Connolly says the one-dimensional version of Martin Luther King Jr. that is pervasive today does a disservice to his enormously complex and radical political legacy. (Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., was a complex man with a distorted legacy, according to historian Nathan Connolly.

On the 50th anniversary of King's assassination, Connolly argued the importance to remember that he was considered a divisive figure, both in his lifetime and after his death.

"Part of the way that we have effectively made him a consensus builder is by making sure that we don't talk about very key parts of his message," Connolly, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"Martin Luther King was in favour of … slavery reparations for Jim Crow. He was very explicit about that. And so those kinds of things are considered, by and large, beyond the pale now."

Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. listening to a transistor radio in the front line of the third march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to campaign for proper registration of black voters on March 23, 1965. (William Lovelace/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

King's radical ideas didn't make him popular among most Americans — certainly white Americans, said Connolly.

"A lot of what we now have taken to be the acceptable desegregation message of King and his allies ... was at a time considered to be very, very much out of bounds," he said.

Coretta Scott King and her husband Martin Luther King, seen here in Dec. 1964. (AFP/Getty Images)

In commemorating King, mainstream American watered down his message and in turn neglected his work, said civil rights activist Bree Newsome.

The community organizer told Tremonti the understanding of King's message has been narrowed down to his "I have a dream" speech in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

His true message, she argued, was more complex than simply that speech's focus on integrating black Americans into the wider American society.

President Lyndon B Johnson (L) faces civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr. across a table in this B&W images from 1965.
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr., in 1965. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"He succeeded in getting the Civil Rights Act [of 1964] and Voting Rights Act [of 1965] passed, but he made very clear in the latter part of his life that he viewed that as simply part one of the civil rights movement," Newsome explains.

"He felt that in order for America to really transcend issues of racism and poverty and militarism, that the nation itself had to undergo a radical transformation of values."

WWMLKD: What Would MLK Do?

Newsome pointed to King's violent death as having a tremendous impact over the last 50 years.

"There certainly wasn't a sense in 1968 that Martin Luther King had accomplished his mission," she says, adding that the following assassination of U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968 "dealt another blow to the civil rights movement and to whatever hope people had of those issues being addressed."

Civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery, on March 30, 1965. (William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images)

Tremonti asked Newsome whether history could have taken a different turn if King was alive today. But Newsome said she's not convinced he would have survived, even if the circumstances of his assassination could have been avoided.

"There was such a concerted effort by the federal government, by many others to undermine the civil rights movement, to target leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and really to disrupt any efforts to organize for black civil rights," she said.

An excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. (Reg Lancaster/Express/Getty Images)

Beyond marking holidays and commemorating speeches, Connolly said it's important to focus on the key principles of King's message looking ahead to the future.

"The platform around fair housing, the platform around the poverty, the platform around workers rights — all of that needs to still be carried forward," he said.

"Anything that can take up the actual political battles that King was fighting for will be where the next chapter of struggle needs to go."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino and Alison Masemann.