Social justice demands reclaiming King’s real legacy of sacrifice, risk

Le Datta Grimes
Le Datta Grimes

Amid the crowds, amid the banners, amid the merriment that seem to encompass Lexington’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations, something is missing.

Each year, thousands gather in downtown Lexington to commemorate the life of the slain civil rights activist, scholar, pastor and leader. It’s tradition in our community. It’s part of our culture.

We breakfast. We march. We watch a few select documentaries showing around town. We sing We Shall Overcome and a national celebrity implores us to “keep our eyes on the prize.” In recent years, we’ve added a day of service when hundreds volunteer throughout the community.

Then, we forget.

We go home, we prepare for work the next day and we return to our lives — seemingly without any real recognition or acknowledgment of the risk and sacrifice inherent in King’s brand of activism. We’ve reduced King to a dreamer when King was very much a doer.

Something is missing. Rather, someone — and that someone is King himself. His commitment. His candor. His passion. And his purpose.

King never participated in a symbolic march or protest. While once-popular narratives lead us to believe the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century was an impromptu grassroots movement, the historiography now reveals that the movement was rooted in passion, power and purpose. King studied. King strategized. And King executed.

His every action, his every word, his every protest centered on the destruction of systemic racism, the eradication of black inequality and the extermination of poverty. And there was nothing symbolic about it. Study the record.

In November 1961, King led protests in Albany, Ga., against segregation. In 1963, he turned his attention to economic discrimination in Birmingham, Ala. In August of that same year, King led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And then, in March 1964 in Kentucky, he joined the march on Frankfort in an effort to end discrimination in public accommodations.

The march’s aim was to support a state bill to end segregation in public spaces such as hotels, restaurants and theaters. The legislation failed, but two years later, in 1966, Kentucky passed a civil rights law, making it the first southern state to do so.

In each of these scenarios, King and his supporters had specific outcomes in mind. Yet, we march symbolically. Why is this?

Writer Jamil Smith contended in a recent article in the New Republic that we have “ritualized” King, meaning we’ve boiled him down to soundbites that are the least offensive to white sensibilities and most comfortable for the rest of us.

That is not the King who visited Kentucky in 1964. That is the King of our creation — and this King is both repulsive and counterproductive to social equality.

Across the nation, there’s a growing discontent with the King of our creation.

With the cry #ReclaimMLK, the Movement for Black Lives called on communities across the country to divest from racist systems and invest in black communities, capturing “control over the systems and institutions that affect and shape our lives” and creating alternative or creative institutions to eradicate oppression and systemic injustice.

So, Lexington, is there more?

At least 1,500 people attended the annual MLK Day breakfast, hundreds marched and participated in the local day of service. And neighborhood businesses donated thousands of dollars to the annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration program.

Is there a way to channel these energies — all this time, all this money, all this willingness of heart — into something more? We have nearly a year to strategize on how we, in Lexington, choose to #ReclaimMLK. Real social justice demands that we move beyond just celebrating King’s legacy to adopting his lifestyle of risk and sacrifice.

We must march with meaning — or maybe not at all.

Le Datta Denise Grimes of Lexington is a freelance writer and doctoral candidate in history at the University of Kentucky.