Why Do We Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every Year?

A painting of Martin Luther King, Jr. looking to the side while a multiracial group of people uplift a globe in the foreground. The statue of liberty stands in the background
Event artwork by Wisthon Thimé for MIT’s 48th Annual MLK Celebration

A couple weeks ago, I served as the master of ceremony for the 2022 Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration at MIT on February 10, 2022. A full recording of the event can be found at the link here. My opening remarks are included below.

~~

Before I share my opening remarks, I want to take a moment to acknowledge Amir Locke, who just last week was killed by Minneapolis police. I’m not that old yet, I’m 27 years old, but I’m really tired of having to march in the streets, over and over again, and see no change.

As I have reflected for opening today’s celebration, I have continuously come back to the question of “Why”. Why do we do this every year for 48 years in a row? And why do we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. in particular? Today isn’t for Harriet Tubman, nor is it for Ella Baker or Fred Hampton.

Honestly, I think a big reason is that he wore a suit, he was very formally educated, and he used tactics for social change that don’t immediately scare white people. However, I think another big part is his late wife Mrs. Coretta Scott King, who worked for decades to pass some of the lessons learned in their freedom struggle into the future. I think these are invaluable lessons, regardless of where one stands on respectability politics or the tactic of nonviolent direct action.

Let us begin by outright rejecting the whitewashed image Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that leads people to make wild claims like he would not support teaching critical race theory. The reality is that Dr. King was, in the words Marc Lamont Hill, “A Black radical anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, revolutionary Christian who was murdered as an enemy of the State.“

I know this because I benefited from Mrs. King’s efforts. 7 years ago, I took a course in African-American history at the King Institute at Stanford, which was founded, in part, because of Mrs. King’s efforts to pass on his legacy.

I started the course a month after police killed Mike Brown. Two months after police killed Eric Garner. And during a time when I was realizing how profoundly my Blackness had been impacting the experiences of me, my friends and my family.

Learning about the Black freedom struggle in that course is still easily one of the most inspiring things I have ever done. I learned it wasn’t Dr King single-handedly delivering speeches that melted the racism out of white people like some kind of superhero. It was a community of regular people — cooks, sharecroppers, maids — who came together asserted their humanity. It was people like Jo Ann Robinson, Rosa Parks and the entire Women’s Political Council that organized for years before launching and executing a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery city Buses — the event that first brought Dr. King into the national spotlight.

And a month after finishing the history course, I worked with several dozen other students to reclaim his radical legacy by blocking a Bay Area bridge on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We shut it down for Mike Brown — and because of that, we all got arrested.

Even though there were serious consequences, I felt good knowing that I was standing up for what is right — just like the bus boycotters and the countless other nameless, faceless freedom fighters that came before us.

The theme for this year is “Open your mind and heart to truth and love.”. Which at first, felt like watered down version of Dr. King to me, honestly. But I think living out truth and love is actually really hard. Because when you go against the power structure, there are consequences. During his life, the people invested in the status quo bombed little girls at church. They murdered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and they have disappeared and imprisoned many more Black radicals like him. In this country, speaking truth has been and continues to be something that could bring us and our loved ones a lot of harm.

For me, this is really why we’re here today. We’re here to remember our true history and to draw from the courage demonstrated during this time, when regular people would choose their love of community and their love of justice over fear of retribution. We’re here today to celebrate those in our MIT community that bravely challenge the power structure to make things better for us all, often at their own personal cost. Personally, I don’t believe bridge protests necessarily lead to structural changes. But my hope is that today’s celebration will remind us all of the power we do possess when we organize together as a community in the face of real fears.

And finally, I want to end with this:

Let us never forget that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at a labor union organizing campaign. He felt strongly that trade unions were essential for the economic empowerment of all Americans, and black Americans in particular

That quote is from Mrs. Coretta Scott King at MIT’s MLK celebration 28 years ago.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store