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Decades Since His Death, MLK's Shadow Still Shapes Today's Activism

Demonstrators march in December 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio, the day after a grand jury declined to indict a police officer in the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice in 2014.
Angelo Merendino
Getty Images
Demonstrators march in December 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio, the day after a grand jury declined to indict a police officer in the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice in 2014.

The country remembers the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday. More than four decades after his death, many people see the Black Lives Matter movement as the modern incarnation of the drive for human dignity and legal standing that Dr. King embodied.

But others, including members of an earlier generation of activists, find fault with the group, seeing it as an aimless, formless group that still lacks direction and follow-through. Meanwhile, younger activists sometimes see their seniors as too narrow in their focus and rigid in their methods.

Others ask whether the mere fact that another protest movement has arisen is a sign that earlier efforts have fallen short.

To delve into King's legacy in modern activism, NPR's Michel Martin turned to the Rev. William Barber II and Patrisse Cullors, two prominent activists.

Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, is best known for leading Moral Monday protests across the state in 2013. Cullors, an artist from Los Angeles, is considered one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter movement.

Interview Highlights

On Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy

Cullors: Part of our work in this generation has been about reclaiming MLK, and the ways that this government, in a lot of ways, has totally whitewashed his legacy. As a young kid growing up, what we were given was the "[I Have A] Dream" speech. We weren't given his grassroots organizing, we weren't given that King was a local organizer. We weren't given everything he did up until the Voting Rights Act. And when I joined this movement as a young person, I realized, oh, King is so much more.

Barber: I see the legacy of Dr. King as even beyond the civil rights movement. I see the legacy connected to the Old Testament prophets who stood up for the marginalized and against injustice, to the social gospel movement that stood up and asked a question, "What would Jesus do in the face of terrible economic inequities and damage to workers?" Right on through to the second Reconstruction, which I call the civil rights movement.

You know, that intersectionality — fusion politics: bringing together blacks and whites and Latinos, and Jews and Christians and Muslims. But doing it in a way that takes race and class seriously and does not separate them.

On Black Lives Matter addressing institutional change

Cullors: Folks have seen the protesting and the marching, the arrests. But folks haven't actually sat down with movement leaders to say, "And what else are you doing?" The negotiations with mayors, with chiefs of police, with county sheriffs — people are missing the negotiations because that's not what gets highlighted in the media. And I think what we ask of folks is to be patient. Instead of heavily critiquing us, join us and help us strategize around what's next and what's possible.

On the success and failure of historical movements

Barber: We are in a reality right now where we have less voting rights today than we had Aug. 6, 1965, after the Shelby decision and the inaction of the Congress. But that's what movements do. This country is constantly going through reconstruction. And there are times when we have to do two things at the same time. We have to protect what was won and expand. So we have to fight in the courts, we have to fight in the street, we have to fight in the legislative halls, and we have to fight at the ballot box. Democracy is hard; it is not easy.

Cullors: I'm very grateful that I'm in this fight. And I've sat with civil rights leaders and I've sat with former [Black] Panthers who say, "I'm sorry, we failed you." And I say to them "No, you didn't. You've set the standard, and we are continuing to move that forward." We can't expect to undo 500 years. We just can't expect to undo it in three or four decades.

Barber: It says more about the failure of America, but it also says something about the greatness of movements and the seeds that were sown by Ella Baker and Dr. King and Rosa Parks. We are their children. ...

My mother said to me one day, "Listen, we fought too hard for you to stop. You better fight, you better stand up." That's why our mantra is, no matter what they say to us, no matter how many death threats we get, no matter what politicians do, we are going forward together.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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