By Melanie Eversley, NABJ Black News & Views
As the nation commemorates the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one academic considers how King is visible in so many global events today. Dr. Lerone Martin has been the head of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research & Education Institute for a year. The institute was founded 17 years ago to edit and protect King’s documents after he was murdered in a Memphis motel in 1968. The center is located on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California.
Dr. Clayborne Carson, the institute’s departing founding director, started working on saving and revising King’s letters, lectures, writings, and more after King’s widow, the late Coretta Scott King, requested him.
Martin, 43, is now part of a new generation of leaders that includes 42-year-old Tamika Mallory, a founder of the Women’s March and organiser in the campaign to bring Brittney Griner home from a Russian prison, newly elected Earle, Arkansas, Mayor Jaylen Smith, 18, and Rev. James Woodall, 28, who was the Georgia NAACP’s youngest state president in history.
Martin has published extensively on faith and human rights. He has held the Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Chair in Stanford’s Department of Religious Studies, as well as the directorship of American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Martin recently spoke with NABJ Black News & Views about King’s impact.
NABJ BNV: What of Dr. King’s teachings have been passed down to today’s activists?
Martin: One of the things that has remained consistent for Martin King from his time in the 1960s to today is his ability to attract media attention to different injustices. Dr. King did not have social media, nor did he have 24-hour news outlets like CNN. He was practically radio-free. He was very strategic in his use of fame and notoriety to draw attention to various issues across the nation.
Communities across the nation were demonstrating, but they rarely gained momentum until King arrived. I believe that today’s young people are very aware of how to use the information that is available to them.
I’m reminded that I was living in St. Louis when Michael Brown was killed, and I recall clearly hearing about it through social media rather than the news. Because the hashtag acquired such traction, local news outlets started to cover it. It began by displaying images of a young boy’s body in the center of the roadway.
NABJ BNV: What would Dr. King think about the current condition of the nation and our acts or apathy towards change?
Martin: I believe Martin King would praise a number of aspects, including the advancement of African Americans in places of power and access, but he would also be unhappy that we as a nation seemed surprised that there is a backlash to some of the advancements made after George Floyd. Martin Luther King Jr. often stated that America has a schizophrenic mentality when it comes to racism and injustice in this nation. Every move forward was followed by two steps back.
According to King, America has always had a tense connection with these issues. I believe King would be upset, and as I’ve previously stated, why are you all surprised? There are evil powers that have been galvanized and organized. There is a clear reaction to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), which has been fabricated under the garb of critical race theory. State leaders are using CRT or “wokeness” to counter DEI.
As a result, I believe he would be unhappy.
Then there’s Georgia, which, for the first time in its history, elects an African American senator and a Jewish senator, and the next day, January 6, happens.
NABJ BNV: At 43, you are still youthful. Where do you believe young people should be searching today for methods to protest and effect change?
Martin: As a historian, I believe they should turn to those who came before us for discussion companions, rather than Martin or Fannie. Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, or Malcolm will provide us with the answers wrapped up in a nice bow, but we should converse with them in a way that allows us to look at what they did, what was successful, and areas where they weren’t successful, so that when we confront our own issues, we don’t have to confront them empty-handed. Principles and Martin Luther King, Jr. I believe we should use them as discussion companions. Not sealed
NABJ BNV: Why did some of King’s tactics succeed while others failed?
Martin: 1962, Albany, Georgia – They learned from Albany that nothing changed when they arrived and went. They spread a too broad net. They arrived in Albany and declared, “We are going to desegregate and demolish Jim Crow in Albany, Georgia.” According to (late pastor and civil rights activist) Wyatt Tee Walker, they learned a lot from that, and when they returned to Birmingham, they concentrated on the downtown shops around Easter. They were well aware that this would attract notice. They were well aware that this would result in a catastrophe.
Wyatt Tee Walker stated that he went downtown and examined how many chairs were available at the lunch counters, as well as how long it would take a younger or older individual to settle down at the lunch counter. They prepared ahead of time and were laser-focused in their efforts. When we see images of these demonstrators, we often get the impression that people just turned up, but when we speak to the John Lewises (and other civil rights activists), we realize there was a lot of planning. (These endeavors) were shown to be effective.
NABJ BNV: What plans do you have for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday?
Martin: My family and I will attend service at Stanford Memorial Church on Sunday. We’ll attend a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial ceremony, and then I’ll talk at James Madison University on Monday.
NABJ BNV: What is the main point of your speech?
Martin: I believe the message’s title will simply be “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Work and Legacy.”
NABJ BNV: Any final words?
Martin: My hope is that people will take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about Martin Luther King Jr. Don’t just be satisfied by reading the “I have a dream” speech but to learn something new. Our website, kinginstitute.stanford.edu, is an excellent resource for reading and learning about Martin Luther King Jr., and I would only conclude by saying that I hope the holiday inspires people to focus their efforts and talents towards improving their own local community a better place.
Although not everyone is suited to speak, there are many different factors that contribute to the success of a social justice movement. We need all hands on deck.