Presidents And Parks: The Untold Story Of The Ocean Legacy Of The Nation���s Leaders

On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we asked 10 of his foremost fans and followers about his dreams, his legacy and what he might think of us now.

Lonnie Bunch

Lonnie Bunch

What would Dr. King make of America today?

LONNIE BUNCH, the first African American to head up the Smithsonian Institute: “Martin Luther King Jr. would be dismayed by the America of today but he would not despair.

“He would recognize the significant change in the status of many African Americans who have risen to middle-class status and beyond. He would be heartened by the Black presence in corporate America and in the political system. He would revel in a younger generation standing for change and fairness in the wake of the murders of Brianna Taylor and George Floyd.

“But he would be concerned about the lack of economic opportunity for many still trapped in the inner cities or rural America.

“His dream of a poor people’s campaign that would bring people together across racial and economic lines has not been realized and he would be concerned that America was not closer to the beloved community of fairness and freedom that he marched and died for.

“King would be angry and worried about the partisan divide that seems to reflect not just political but racial divisions in America. And he would demand that America do a better job of living up to the ideals enshrined in the words of the nation’s founders.

“I believe that King would find new ways to challenge America because of his faith in the ultimate goodness of Americans, though today would test that faith.

“Ultimately Dr. King would realize that the struggle for fairness, the struggle to reach the promise land of racial equality would continue as long as there is an America.”

Beverly Daniel Tatum

Beverly Daniel Tatum

Former Spelman College President BEVERLY DANIEL TATUM, author of 'Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race': "How would he understand the return to segregated schools in communities that had once desegregated, the backlash against affirmative action, the rising rates of Black incarceration, the growing economic disparities, the widespread assault on voting rights and the increased mainstream visibility of White supremacists on the political landscape?

"The answer he gave in his last book, 'Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community,' published in 1967, still applies today.

"He wrote, 'The line of progress is never straight. … The inevitable counterrevolution that succeeds every period of progress is taking place. … This tendency of the nation to take one step forward on the question of racial justice and then to take a step backward is still the pattern.'

"We are at an important historical moment with regard to our nation’s legacy of dealing with race. It is a moment that contains both dangers and opportunities. We can allow the forces leading to greater segregation to drive us further apart as a nation, or we can use our leadership as active citizens to engage one another in the work of building community across lines of difference.

"In 1967, Dr. King ended his last book with these words: 'We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation.' But he warned, 'This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” The choice remains. If we don’t want chaos, we must choose community.'"

Why is Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech still so powerful all these years later?

National Civil Rights Museum President RUSS WIGGINTON, who earned his doctorate in African American History from the University of Illinois: “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a monumental moment in American history and served as clarion call for our country to do better by all of its citizens.

Russ Wigginton

Russ Wigginton

“Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech had an audience of approximately 200,000 people and millions watching around the country.

“For many, this speech was the first time they actually experienced the power of Dr. King as an inspirational speaker. His words are timeless, and capture a consciousness about ourselves and our society.

“He made us look in the mirror and would challenge us to do the same today. Almost 60 years later, we have a different version of division but the root cause of inequity remains.

“‘I Have a Dream’ is still so powerful because Dr. King gave the country a playbook to reach our full potential. The core of his playbook is still relevant today.”

What’s the passage from a speech that would make the world a better place if everyone adhered to it?

NADINE STROSSEN, national president of the ACLU from 1991-2008: ”From 1957’s ‘Love Your Enemies’ sermon: ‘Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.’

Nadine Strossen

Nadine Strossen

“Too many people today, all across the political spectrum, are too quick to accuse others of engaging in ‘hate speech,’ just for expressing a view with which the accuser disagrees. Even worse, the accusers too often display hateful attitudes toward those they accuse of hate speech. This fuels the increased polarization that is pervading our politics and culture.

“Dr. King faced not only vitriolic hate speech — vicious racist epithets hurled directly at him — but also hateful violence. Yet he responded with love and nonviolence, and he trained his followers to do likewise. This approach is what won people to his cause, including even some prominent former hatemongers — for example, arch-segregationist George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama.

“To this day, human rights activists who are following in Dr. King’s footsteps reject coercive tactics as an ineffective way to win hearts and minds; instead of harshly blaming and shaming people by calling them out, they urge that we should instead call people in, recognizing and building upon our common humanity.

"This positive approach has led many former members and even leaders of hateful organizations to repudiate their views and to dedicate their lives to redeeming others.

“Following Dr. King’s loving example won’t always succeed, but doing the opposite will always fail.”

Margaret Huang

Margaret Huang

MARGARET HUANG, President/CEO, Southern Poverty Law Center: "In December 1961, Dr. King gave a speech to the Fourth Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO, where he stated:

This will be the day when we shall bring into full realization the dream of our American democracy-a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, a dream of a land where men do not argue that the color of a man's skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality-that is the dream.

"I love this quote for many reasons. First, it highlights the vital importance of democracy to achieving the dreams many Americans hold dear. As the Senate considers voting rights legislation on Dr. King's birthday, they must vote to protect our democracy and ensure that everyone can exercise their right to vote.

"The quote also emphasizes that economic disparities damage our society, and that we must ensure that the wealth of this country is shared fairly among its residents.

"Lastly, it foreshadows Dr. King's 'I Have a Dream' speech by emphasizing that race has nothing to do with our contributions and capacity as individuals. It is my dream that we will achieve racial equity, economic justice, and democracy by building a better nation together."

Deborah Archer

Deborah Archer

ACLU President DEBORAH ARCHER, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at New York University School of Law: "Dr. King often spoke about the Beloved Community. He said: 'The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle is over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.'

"The Beloved Community was Dr. King’s vision for a truly integrated America, where every person and every community had access to social and economic opportunity. Not separate and unequal, but a society where everyone could live lives of joy and dignity, where everyone was invested in the well-being and dignity of their fellow human being.

"Dr. King believed that in the Beloved Community, we would experience true justice and equality. Opportunity would not be parceled out to privileged individuals or groups, but instead would be the birthright of everyone.

"In many ways, American history is the history of American opposition to that ideal. And more than 60 years later, America remains profoundly segregated along racial lines — we live separately, we learn separately and we socialize separately. Where the Beloved Community seeks to include, oppression and racism seek to exclude. Where everyone in the Beloved Community is treated with dignity, racism defines its victims as unworthy, as less than.

"Today, on this day of gratitude, reflection, and recommitment, we are all called upon to renew our pledge to work move us closer to the Beloved Community. To continue to move the work and vision of Dr. King forward."

Walter Fluker

Walter Fluker

WALTER FLUKER, Martin Luther King, Jr. professor emeritus of ethical leadership at Boston University, where Rev. King earned his Ph.D.: “Calling on the federal government to fulfill the promise of the three-year-old Brown v. Board of Education decision, national civil rights leaders called for a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King spoke these eerily prescient words nearly 65 years ago:

All types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote.

Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.

Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.

Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens ...

If Dr. King were with us today, what causes would he be inspired to support?

Carole Boston Weatherford

Carole Boston Weatherford

Two-time NAACP Image Award winner and best-selling author CAROLE BOSTON WEATHERFORD: “Dr. King would be pushing for voting rights legislation. Nothing else matters quite as much. Our democracy depends on it.”

Shayla Nunnally

Shayla Nunnally

SHAYLA NUNNALLY, author of ‘Trust in Black America: Race, Discrimination and Politics”: “I would definitely say that Dr. King would focus on voting rights. Dr. King was extremely optimistic about American democracy, although by his life's end, he questioned whether or not democracy, full-citizenship and economic empowerment could be realized.

"He would have strongly and unflinchingly spoken out about the attempts to restrict voting access and limit legislation to enhance its protection. He probably would have traveled widely, met with leaders of all races across the country and around the world to speak of popular sovereignty as a component of humanity and what was just for the human spirit to express what is important for a decent quality of life and human dignity.

"Hands down, I believe Dr. King would be testifying before Congress, meeting with the President and challenging the American public to join in the effort to promote equal access and ease of access to voting."

Lerone Martin

Lerone Martin

LERONE MARTIN, director of Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute: “During his life, Dr. King was committed to ending what he called ‘the evil triplets’ — militarism, racism and poverty.

“If he were with us today, I imagine he would continue a nonviolent struggle against these same evil triplets as they manifest themselves in violence, war and militarized police; racial supremacy, voter suppression and White Christian nationalism; and legislation and economic practices that breed and perpetuate never-ending poverty.”

LEE SAUNDERS, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME): “Dr. King would be on the front lines of our efforts to protect the vote, to ensure Black lives are treated with dignity and to increase worker power through unions.

Lee Saunders

Lee Saunders

“He understood — perhaps better than anybody — that the fight for justice must be waged on multiple fronts. It’s why, especially in the latter part of his life, he spoke frequently about the inextricable links between the struggle for racial justice and economic justice.

“It’s why he joined AFSCME-represented Memphis sanitation workers in their strike for respect, dignity, and a union in 1968 — when he was tragically struck down.”

What’s something most people still don’t know, or get right, about Dr. King?

JOSEPH ROSENBLOOM, author of the critically acclaimed ‘Redemption: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last 31 Hours’: ”Some conservative Republican candidates are construing words from King's legendary ‘I Have a Dream’ speech to mean that he would have opposed a complex idea known as critical race theory.

Joseph Rosenbloom

“Critical race theory holds that racism is embedded in laws, regulations and other social and legal structures in this country. It argues that, to root out racism, the nation must examine those structures to ensure that they are not having a racist effect.

“In one line from the speech in question, King says he dreams of a time when his children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. That one sentence is being misinterpreted to suggest that King would have objected to critical race theory.

“He risked his life to combat racism in all its forms. To claim that he would have condemned any approach to identify and eliminate social structures that might result in racist outcomes is implausible on its face.

“The claim, moreover, does not square with what King was saying toward the end of his life. Distressed at the lack of progress in his civil rights movement, he was urging a ‘reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values,’ as he told journalist David Halberstam in a 1968 interview.”

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