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Important parts of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy are often glossed over

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For many Americans, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a day of public service, a time to volunteer in their communities. It's also a day when many of us reflect on the legacy of the late civil rights leader. NPR's Adrian Florido reports that ongoing fights for voting and racial justice have also sparked a reckoning over how King's legacy is often invoked in that work.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: When he was in Georgia last week calling on the Senate to pass federal voting rights legislation, President Biden had this prediction for how those opposing that legislation would mark today's King holiday.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Americans of all stripes will praise him for the content of his character. But as Dr. King's family said before, it's not enough to praise their father. They even said, on this holiday, don't celebrate his birthday unless you're willing to support what he lived for and what he died for.

FLORIDO: Biden was right. This morning, many of the senators opposing the voting rights bill tweeted tributes to King. The Reverend Adam Russell Taylor of Sojourners, a Christian social justice group, says the president was putting his finger on how commonly people wrap themselves in Dr. King's legacy for political expedience.

ADAM RUSSELL TAYLOR: Many politicians and others want to kind of self-select those pieces of King that they want to agree with. And actually, even some of those pieces, they take out of context, so, you know, his kind of famous words from his I Have A Dream speech.

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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: My four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

(APPLAUSE)

FLORIDO: That quote is often used to suggest King would support a conservative vision of a colorblind society, in which policies like affirmative action or voter protection laws are unnecessary.

TAYLOR: Not only does his words get taken out of context, but also there's willful amnesia of the totality of what he stood for.

FLORIDO: King was a vocal opponent of war, imperialism and materialism. He organized on behalf of poor people and revered voting as the cornerstone of political action and civil rights - aspects of his vision, Taylor says, that today are often ignored. In the case of the ongoing fight over voting rights, that amnesia, Taylor says, is dangerous.

TAYLOR: And it's a real betrayal to his life and legacy that 50 years later, voting rights is continuing to be a issue that's under assault. So those other pieces of what Dr. King stood for, I think, is something that we really do need to grapple with.

FLORIDO: Angela Lang says it's not only conservatives who she has recently encouraged to look critically at how they invoke Martin Luther King's legacy.

ANGELA LANG: My favorite quote from MLK - it's literally about the white moderate...

FLORIDO: From the letter King while locked up at the Birmingham Jail.

LANG: The white moderate sometimes being more harmful to our community because they say, oh, I agree with you; I don't agree with your methodology - you know, telling us to wait for a more convenient season to do some of our activism.

FLORIDO: Lang runs Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, a Milwaukee group that's been at the center of racial justice protests in that city. Among the pushback her work has faced, she says, is from people who've said they support her cause until protests have turned disruptive, like when they occupied a freeway.

LANG: You know, after George Floyd was murdered, I know a lot of folks took to Instagram and had the black square. But really, it still seems a little bit performative - so really challenging and saying, if you really want to honor Dr. King's legacy, are you part of the white moderate that he was talking about?

FLORIDO: For Lang, it's a question of intellectual honesty about what Dr. King really stood for.

LANG: People want to just remember the nice, positive things, the unity, the let's all come together. But really, it whitewashes a lot of his radical and, I think, more nuanced stances.

FLORIDO: And she says flattening that nuance does a disservice to the racial justice and civil rights fights of today. Adrian Florido, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.