April 7, 2017

Do Not Oversimplify MLK’s Complex Legacy

By Domenic Fraboni

A very belated Martin Luther King Day post

By: James H. Lee 

A couple of months ago, I was tasked with reporting on the Office for Diversity’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day event – “Content of Character, Color of Skin; Has Dr. King’s Dream Been Realized?” One lengthy name for an event, but I hoped that the length of the title was justified by the complexity of the hour-long talk. What was Dr. King’s legacy, and how did it affect how we see race today? How has Dr. King’s message transformed since he was assassinated on April 4th forty-nine years ago?

The discussion was opened up with Dr. Eddie Greene introducing the panel and then reading a few quotes from a prepared list. It was great to remember how Dr. King was a phenomenal orator and writer with an uncanny ability to sum up grand truths in short statements - a true literary magician, instilling hope and courage in thousands of people at a time. But I couldn’t help but feel that Dr. King’s legacy was cheated somehow by simply reading pithy excerpts from his various speeches and letters – it is dangerous to reduce an entire individual to thirty or so intentionally elegant sentences without understanding the surrounding historical context.

At the MLK Memorial in Washington DC. ~PC James Lee

Now, to be fair, this criticism is coming from someone whose favorite quote is from MLK – “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” (Sends shivers down your spine, doesn’t it?) But I was never simply content to accept the quote as a quote – I continued to delve into the history. I researched how the quote came from a Baccalaureate speech at Wesleyan University in 1964 and how the quote was used in previous ministers’ sermons (e.g. Reverend Seth Brooks in 1934, Rabbi Jacob Kohn in 1940) before its “debut” in Middletown, CT. I read about the context of the Civil Rights Movement at that time and what may have inspired Dr. King to use those words at that time.

People love to abbreviate history into quotations. “Four score and seven years ago.” “I have a dream.” “Ask not what your country can do for you.” Quotes are full of buzzwords and emotions, but they are also a lazy way of understanding someone’s legacy. In the future, I hope that no one walks away from a list of quotes satisfied. There should always be more exploration and navigation into the history of the words.

Which brings us to the meat of the discussion. The four panelists (Aiyana Batton, Domenic Fraboni, Dr. Michael J. Joyner, and Dr. Latasha Smith) introduced themselves and immediately dove into what Martin Luther King meant for them. How has Dr. King’s message affected them today?

Hearkening back to the previous point of digging deeper into history, one of the more provocative points involved talking about the flaws of Dr. King. It is easy to simply remember Dr. King as a saint who could do no wrong, one who brought forth a universal message that rang true with the heartstrings of Americans. We tend to purify and idolize the people whom we admire, emphasizing the cleanest aspects of these people. But then we forget that Dr. King had familial strife. He engaged in sex outside of marriage in spite of his vocation. He was likely against LGBTQ marriage in spite of the fact that one of the chief organizers for the Civil Rights Movement, Bayard Rustin, was a gay man. By pursuing the history of Dr. King’s life, the panelists argued that we are not degrading his legacy, but rather giving context to the man who gave us his words. Dr. King’s legacy was not a simple one, and to give it full justice, one needs to understand the good and bad parts of the man that made the legacy a realizable one for the American people.

More MLK Jr. Memorial pics. ~PC James Lee

There were some other powerful points made by each of the panelists. Ms. Batton remarked on how she saw how Dr. King’s messages affected her consistently as a young black woman in school. Mr. Fraboni discussed about how the legacy that King left also affected his life as a white male in a relatively racially homogenous place. Dr. Joyner examined privilege and how much more complex racial and socioeconomic privilege are today in the melting-pot of America. Dr. Smith mentioned the various challenges and rewards of working as a black woman in a STEM field. The panelists brought forth stories from their peers, superiors, families, friends, and themselves and thrust them into the complex discussion that was forming around us. The panelists trekked through quite an expansive terrain of what Dr. King’s legacy means today in a less black-and-white America, how Dr. King would be pleased or disturbed by the progress (or lack thereof) since his death, and how a Trump administration reflects (or really does not reflect) the visions of Dr. King. The generational divides between the panelists showcased how various generations (Baby Boomers vs. Gen Xers vs. Millennials) took racial justice for granted. How much of Dr. King’s legacy was centered on race, and how much of it was dedicated to intersectionality – gender, socioeconomic status (aka poverty), age? Clearly, the legacy of Dr. King is a multifaceted one that lends itself to multiple complex narratives in people today, nearly fifty years after his death.

Nearly one month after the event at Mayo, I happened to be visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. with a close friend from college. The memorial is an architectural feat that acts as Dr. King’s quote book. As my friend and I strolled through the memorial and spent time analyzing various quotes, I felt frustrated with how oversimplified the memorial seemed. King’s legacy could not simply be wrapped up in a few words. The memorial did not seem to encourage critical thought, but rather, it seemed to quash it by distracting us with inspirational “quotes of the day.”

James in Washington DC at the MLK Jr. Memorial.

We should not fall into that trap. We should never cease finding new questions and accepting difficult answers. We should never simply accept “truths” handed to us by society or various individuals. Thoroughly understanding history is the only way to think critically about the political and legal systems in place today.

King’s legacy is not a simple one. It’s not confined to “I Have a Dream.” And only by asking and answering sophisticated questions can we begin to fully respect and appreciate how Dr. King changed America for the better.

Bio: James Lee is a first-year medical student at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine interested in pursuing Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He loves music, dogs, and cheese a lot.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to the Mayo Clinic Office for Diversity for hosting the MLK Jr. event, as well as the moderator Dr. Eddie Greene and panelists Aiyana Batton, Domenic Fraboni, Dr. Michael J. Joyner, and Dr. Latasha Smith for their contributions to the discussion.

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