The real legacy of Martin Luther King Day

“Well this country is a hypocrite. They try and make you think they set you free by calling you a second class citizen. No, you’re nothing but a 20th century slave”

Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet, 1964

Once again, it is Martin Luther King Day, first observed as a US federal holiday in some states in 1986. In 1979, the first attempt to sign the day into law failed. In 1983 a mass public campaign, soundtracked by Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” anthem, persuaded policymakers to change their minds, and the third Monday in January (near his Jan 15 birthday) was legislated as a federal holiday. Both Arizona’s governor and the electorate rejected the notion of a paid holiday in King’s honor, leading to a campaign led by Corretta Scott King to boycott the state. Phoenix, the capital city of Arizona, lost its chance to host the 1993 Superbowl due to the controversy surrounding the state’s refusal. After losing an anticipated $200 million in income, voters learned their lesson and 1992 enshrined the holiday into law. In 2000, South Carolina was the last state to recognize the day as a paid holiday making MLD Day an official nationwide holiday.

“MLK day is celebrated because the legacy that we live with has conditioned us further into the system of racism”

Every state now marks the day, but Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida combine it with a day to commemorate Robert E Lee, a confederate general who fought for the South’s right to enslave Afrikans and is the opposite of what King stood for. Like most civil rights gains, even MLK day still has to be fought for.

MLK Day has now become a fixture of the calendar, with annual celebrations connected to celebrating not just the man but the movement. Yet while you kick back, settle in for the NBA game slate and sing the Black American national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” we need to consider the real legacy of the day.

King is in curious company, one of only three men with US national holidays in their honor. The other two men are George “Slave Owner” Washington and Christopher “Genocide” Columbus. If public holidays tell us about the soul of the nation, then you could argue it is progress that civil rights now sits alongside slavery and genocide… but only if you spent MLK day chugging down the Kool-Aid of the American dream. The nation embraced MLK day because his legacy is not a challenge to the system but has actually helped to further embed racism into society.

“Racism is as much a blight on the lives of Black people as it was in the sixties and with the advent of mass incarceration, you could argue it is worse

Before the howls of disapproval get too loud, it’s important to acknowledge that it didn’t have to be this way. King was killed because he pushed the civil rights movement to demand transformative change in the economy. His Poor People’s Campaign, spearheaded with a plan for civil disobedience against economic inequality, combined with his condemnation of the Vietnam War, dubbed him the “radical King.” It would be wrong to get too carried away, but it is fair to consider King’s legacy had he not been assassinated. He was not popular at the time, and, likely, the nation would never have embraced him.

But we have to assess the legacy of King and the movement by what had been, not what might have been. The civil rights movement was one of the most successful in history, largely achieving the stated goals of dismantling formal segregation and gaining voting rights for Black Americans. Before the movement, Black Americans were almost completely locked out of mainstream success. The changes it brought in allowed limited access to the system. Yet by the time he died, King told activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte (as written in his memoir “My Song”) that he feared that the civil rights movement was “integrating into a burning house.”

The truth is that the house may not be burning, but the civil rights gains were only successful in opening the doors to the plantation house. A lucky few of us have “made it,” but the majority are locked out, catching hell in the field.

“Until we realise that racism is the system, and that no amount of access or reform will ever make us free, then we will keep waking up in the American nightmare”

Malcolm warned us that the best we could get for appealing to the system was “second class citizenship.” After witnessing George Floyd have the life squeezed out of him, how can we delude ourselves into thinking we have the status of fully human, let alone citizens? Racism is as much a blight on the lives of Black people as it was in the sixties, and with the advent of mass incarceration, you could argue it is worse.

I used to roll my eyes at the poll that found 69% of Black Americans thought that the election of Obama was the fulfillment of King’s dream. He may have wanted much more systemic change. However, the reality is that the Black president was the logical endpoint of the civil rights movement. Access to the system allowed for a class of Black politicians that we could put faith in to bring about change. This was just an illusion; even a Black president represented only a symbol and not the hopes of the Black population.

We have achieved only what Malcolm called “token integration,” with the visible examples of “success” acting as a mirage of progress. The civil rights movement ultimately led us down the dead-end road we find ourselves at the end of. Until we realize that racism is the system and that no amount of access or reform will ever make us free, then we will keep waking up in the American nightmare.

MLK day is celebrated because the legacy that we live with has conditioned us further into the system of racism. So if you are fortunate to have one, then enjoy the day off, but understand that there is nothing to celebrate. Instead, we should use the day as a reminder that the struggle continues and must take a radically different direction if liberation is our goal.


  1. Another excellent article,

    When I was growing up in London to Jamaican parents in the late 70’s early 80’s my Dad was an avid Ali fan.
    He’d stay up and ridiculous hours to watch his fights, he even back then went to the rumble in the jungle and to this day I have a signed autograph of Muhammad Ali.

    Like all children of Caribbean parents in the UK we had the drinks cabinet which was only used when friends and family came over.
    I’d sit with my sisters quietly listen to the conversation of the adults soaking in the Wray and Nephew infused air mixed with music and some coconut drops and blue draws.

    One conversation I remember tuning into when family from the USA came to London to visit was interspersed with Malcolm X, MLK and Michael X stories.
    What struck me was how much my Father my Uncles my Aunties friends could all recount Malcolm’s impact and speeches.
    This was in the face of the violence meted out to Black people in the UK and the USA they understood it they felt it.
    It was clear from watching Muhammed Ali on the Parkinson show the anger towards the ‘if you hit me, I will hit you back ‘ school. As opposed to the perception that MLK would turn the other cheek.

    I was taught as a young black man growing up as one of two Black kids in school that if someone hits you ..you hit them back.
    It worked the young white kids in my school who’d been fed a diet of Alf Garnett et al soon realised that there was an exacting price to pay and decided that I was ‘ alright ‘ and better left alone.

    What struck with me as a child back then was the stories of Malcolm X visit to Smethwick, his speeches and most importantly the reaction to white people when presented with this.

    From reading my history I learnt that most white people in my opinion do not have tools or interest in African/Black History to really listen.
    The conversation is once on a subject they are uncomfortable ends up in me having to try and accommodate their feelings while I have to suppress my own about race.
    Generally, its attritional and slow to have to drag them to a point where when you discuss Malcolm X with them it becomes impossible.
    The kind of conversations that in fact are not shared with white people, raw anger resentment to the way we have been historically treated and continue to be treated.

    I think most Black people who are familiar with both Malcolm X and MLK are in either camp you cannot straddle both no matter how hard you may try.

    You cannot be a house slave and a field slave at the same time pick a side.

  2. Thumbs up bro Kehinde.
    It is hypocritical to pretend celebrating MLK Day for economic and other reasons while promoting “Un-Critical Race Theory,” enacting ‘Jim Crow 2.0 Laws, and hating the Black Lives Matter movement.
    FYI, below please find the link to my humble contribution to today’s celebration of MLK Day. It’s titled, “Spero, Ergo Sum Or I Hope, Therefore, I Am: Meditations on Martin L. King, Jr. Day”The AFRO American Newspaper, January 17, 2022. Spero, Ergo Sum, or I Hope, Therefore I am: Meditations on Martin L. King, Jr. Day | Afro
    Thank you for sharing your perspective.
    Happy MLK Day! 
    Dr. Zekeh S. Gbotokuma, Associate Prof. of Philosophy at Morgan State University

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: