Looking Back at the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Apr 4, 2018

Wornie Reed, a Martin Luther King Jr. expert at Virginia Tech, says the civil rights leader would "probably die of a heart attack" in response to society in America today.
Credit Cecilia Leonard / Virginia Tech

It's been 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Many remember him as a proponent of peace, but Wornie Reed, a King, race and social policy expert at Virginia Tech, says history has “whitewashed” the civil rights leader.


"He's called a man pushing for peace, and he was the very opposite. I keep saying that I wish he had not added the 'I have a dream' part to the speech, which was ad libbed; it was something he had in other speeches. Saying you have to keep the dream alive suggested Martin Luther King dreamed, and he told us about his dream and therefore we need to keep it alive. That was definitely not Martin Luther King. He was an activist. Non-violent? Yes. But, he was an aggressive, non-violent activist; not a dreamer."

How do you think Dr. King would feel about today's society?

"Oh, he would probably die of a heart attack. He would be surprised that on many of things he was most concerned about, we are know better and in some instances worse. At that time, between 15 and 16 percent of all children were in poverty in this country, and it's higher than that now. One of his other issues was militarism. He would be shocked at some of the things we have done as a country in the last 15 years. Invading a country that was not involved at all in 9/11, and the fact that we have this continuing war in Afghanistan; he would have been arguing for peace there as he argued for peace in Vietnam."

Do you think there is any thing he would be positive about? Anything he would be happy with in today's society?

"I think as most people he would be pleased with the fact that the country elected an African American as president. I think he would be displeased at how little he did for racial issues, but that's another question."

Looking back on his life and legacy, what do you think is the most important thing that we should remember about his life?

"That he was willing to give his life to make things better for Americans who needed things to be better, like the poor. I was at his church the same year as the March on Washington, where he preached a sermon in which he said it was unlikely he was going to live much longer, but he had a hope that we would continue his work. We haven't."

RADIO IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.